Instead of paying it forward with acts of kindness, employees are more likely to pass on acts of greed, new research shows.
The study by researchers at the University of North Carolina and Harvard University discovered that paying it forward — a popular expression for extending generosity to others after someone has been generous to them — is less common than repaying greed with greed.
"The idea of paying it forward is this cascade of goodwill will turn into a utopia with everyone helping everyone," said lead researcher Kurt Gray, an assistant professor of social psychology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. "Unfortunately, greed or looking out for ourselves is more powerful than true acts of generosity."
In five different experiments involving money or work, participants who received an act of generosity didn’t pay it forward any more than those who had been treated equally — but those who had been the victims of greed were more likely to pass that negative act on, creating an undesirable chain reaction.
"The bulk of the scientific research on this concept has focused on good behavior, and we wondered what would happen when you looked at the entire gamut of human behaviors," Gray said.
In one experiment, researchers told participants that four tasks needed to be completed, including two easy tasks and two boring and repetitive chores. They explained to the participants that the work has been previously split, leaving them with the two fun tasks in a generous split, one fun task and one boring task in an equal split, or both boring tasks in a greedy split. After completing the tasks, the researchers had the participants split up four new assignments for another co-worker.
The research found that receiving a generous split of the assignments didn’t prompt any greater generosity than receiving equal treatment, but people who received both boring tasks were more likely to assign the same split to someone else.
"We all like to think that being generous will influence others to treat someone nicely, but it doesn’t automatically create a chain of goodwill," said Gray.
In a second experiment, researchers recruited people to play an economic game where participants were told that someone had split $6 with them and then gave them an envelope that contained the entire $6 for a generous split, $3 for an equal split, or nothing for a greedy split. The participants then received an additional $6 that they could split in another envelope for someone else.
The researchers discovered that people who received nothing in the first envelope were more likely to put little or nothing in the second envelope, with the average amount paid forward by participants who received a greedy split just $1.32, well below an equal split of $3.
Gray said the results confirmed the researchers’ hypothesis that greed would prevail because negative stimuli have more powerful effects on thoughts and actions than positive stimuli.
"To create chains of positive behavior, people should focus less on performing random acts of generosity and more on treating others equally — while refraining from random acts of greed," he said.
The study, co-authored by Harvard's Adrian F. Ward and Michael I. Norton, was recently published online in American Psychological Association's Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.