The Spreading of the Kindness Contagion

Altruism, like the coronavirus, spreads exponentially

Photo: Still Life Photographer Wolfgang Ludwig/Getty Images

It’s not only pathogens like the coronavirus that spread exponentially. For decades psychologists have documented the dark side of “social contagion”: binge-eating, risk-taking, and countless other deleterious behaviors. Yet only recently have academics turned their attention to the phenomenon’s brighter side. Their findings are heartening. Kindness, it turns out, is also contagious.

This is important to keep in mind as we track both the brutal trajectory of the coronavirus and our response to the crisis. Thousands of everyday people are donating their time and money to help strangers. In a way, we’re witnessing dueling contagions: one deadly, the other ameliorative. Mirror images of each other.

The most basic example of the “ kindness contagion” at work is charitable giving. Think of those pleas from a fellow alum to support the old alma mater, or the ubiquitous GoFundMe campaigns. They exist for a reason. They work. Nearly four in 10 Americans say they’ve donated to a charity because a family member or friend asked them to do so, a recent survey found.

Clearly, peer pressure plays a role. Nobody wants to look stingy, with their money or their time. This dynamic helps explain why so many celebrities have responded to Covid-19 by reading children’s books aloud and posting online. What began with a celebrity or two quickly snowballed. The website Storyline Online now lists dozens of celebrity readings, including Oprah Winfrey, Kevin Costner, Amy Adams, Jennifer Garner, and Annette Bening, with more jumping aboard every day. They donate their time for altruistic reasons, yes, but also because they want to match their peers’ generosity. It’s difficult to pinpoint how this kindness contagion began, but that is the point: Once kindness reaches a critical mass it takes on a life of its own.

There is more to the kindness contagion, though, than peer pressure, as a clever study by psychologists Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler revealed. When one person gives money to help others the recipients are more likely to donate to others in future games. A domino effect kicks in, with one person’s generosity spreading first to three people, then nine and still more in subsequent waves.

In other words, altruism, like the coronavirus, spreads exponentially. In epidemiological terms, “community spread” has taken hold, only in a positive way. That’s the case with the flood of people across the U.S. hand-sewing face masks. Bettina D’Ascoli, who runs a sewing studio in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., told the New York Times she sent a mass email urging local sewers to join forces. She was instantly flooded with offers to volunteer. “It just got out of control,” she said, deploying the same language often used to describe the coronavirus.

The kindness contagion has taken hold, despite the fact that most of us are sequestered in our homes. It easily crosses the analog-digital barrier. One study from 2003 found that participants who watched a documentary about Mother Teresa were much more likely afterwards to help others than a second group that watched clips from America’s Funniest Home Videos. Second- and third-hand kindness are equally as powerful as witnessing it firsthand, provided the story is told well.

And like other pathogens, the kindness contagion is capable of mutating, jumping from one type of altruistic behavior to another. Researchers at Stanford recently conducted a study where one group of participants observed people acting generously, and another observed stingy behavior. Afterwards, both groups were asked to correspond with a “pen pal” who had written about the ups and downs of his last month. The participants who witnessed people acting generously wrote friendlier, more empathetic notes than those who had observed miserly behavior. This suggests, says one of the study’s authors, Jamil Zaki, that kindness evolves as it diffuses, replicating not only specific acts of kindness but also “the spirit underlying them.”

That is exactly what is happening now, not in the lab but in the real world. A Maryland woman plays the cello on her front porch each evening. A celebrity chef converts his shuttered restaurants into community kitchens. Kindness begets kindness, though the forms differ.

Like the coronavirus, the kindness contagion demands we consider the far-reaching consequences of our actions. Act as if you have the virus and don’t want to infect others, health officials advise. You never know how many people might be harmed by your single act of carelessness. Conversely, you never know how many people — family and friends, yes, but strangers, too — might benefit from your single act of kindness.

Viewed in this light, there are no small acts of kindness. Each contains the potential to multiply exponentially. Likewise, a single person can inspire millions, as the lives of the Buddha, Gandhi, and Mother Teresa attest. In epidemiological terms, these exemplary humans were the patient zeros of their age, “seeding” others with their kindness.

It is during trying times like ours, says Abigail Marsh, a professor of psychology at Georgetown University, when “extreme altruists” shine. Think of the doctors and nurses and first responders — not to mention the grocery store clerks and delivery drivers — who are spreading kindness, one act at a time. By telling their stories, journalists are not merely penning “feel-good” stories; they are accelerating the kindness contagion. And there are other steps we can take to hasten the spread of kindness. We could, suggests Stanford’s Zaki, encourage social media platforms to reform their incentive structures so that “open-minded, positive posts rise more quickly.”

Spread kindness widely enough and often enough and something fascinating happens: Norms change. Acts once deemed extraordinary become ordinary. Not that long ago, donating blood was something done only by the brave few. Attitudes began to shift in the 1970s, and today opening a vein for strangers is considered an ordinary act of kindness. We have, in a way, developed a herd immunity against the queasiness of donating blood. Who knows what kindness norms the Covid-19 outbreak might change?

The kindness contagion, as we’ve seen, mirrors the trajectory of harmful pathogens, but it differs in at least one fundamental way: human agency. Unlike the coronavirus, which infects people no matter their mindset, the kindness contagion only works if we recognize acts of kindness. We can’t emulate what we don’t see, and we don’t always see kindness. Stephen Jay Gould, the late Harvard paleontologist, called this oversight “The Great Asymmetry.” Writing in the days after the attacks of September 11, he noted that “every spectacular incident of evil is balanced by 10,000 acts of kindness. If only we paid attention.” We have a duty, “almost a holy responsibility,” he said, “to record and honor the victorious weight of these innumerable little kindnesses.” If enough of us do so, we might see the current pandemic of kindness grow even larger — and hopefully stick around long after the coronavirus has been vanquished.

Philosophical Traveler. Recovering Malcontent. My new book, THE SOCRATES EXPRESS, is out now!

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