We may be wired for sharing a sense of social responsibility
To gauge how generous and giving person you are, you might start by looking at how generous your friends and peers are. As a sort of side effect of human instincts driving group cohesion, it appears that our likelihood to behave in a caring or considerate manner is greatly influenced by the examples set by the people around us. If they’re seen as kind, sharing people, chances are you’ll do your best to match them. Happily, this instinct isn’t limited by your ability to perfectly mirror their behavior, as the drive to emulate others’ kindness can even be spurred indirectly, making it easier to “pay it forward,” even you have to pay in a different sort of currency.
Monkey see, monkey donate
As a baseline, it’s been established that being aware of the generosity of your peers will influence how much you’re likely to give of yourself. This can be demonstrated in experiments where people are given a dollar, then told how much of of that money a test subject’s peers supposedly gave. If a person believes the community norm is to be stingy, they’ll follow suit, and vice versa. Newer studies have then taken this premise to see what happens when kindness isn’t so obviously comparable, starting with money but then moving to more nebulous traits like warmth or empathy.
The follow-up study started with descriptions of other people’s donated money, but then gave test subjects a completely different task. Rather than suggest donating money, researchers prompted participants to read personal letters of people describing their lives, and then write a note back. The generosity of test subjects’ peers played a role in these letters, as people who believed their network donated more money wrote friendlier, more supportive notes to their fictional pen pal. People who believed their peers donated very little were more closed and withdrawn in their responses. This showed that the concept of caring was being shared, and that donating money was only one possible mechanism to exercise that idea. Further studies followed, looking at how tight a peer network was necessary to influence a test subject’s behavior. Even reading about how other participants behaved seemed to make a difference, even though the person had never met anyone else from their test subject cohort.
Fitting in with friends
The most likely explanation for this behavior is that humans are very social animals, and we work hard to fit into groups we identify with. When you find a point of agreement with your group, reward centers in the brain are activated. What’s more, those parts of the brain are likely to respond to later action supporting that shared opinion. So in the case of the above studies, agreeing with your group about how much of yourself to give to a stranger is rewarding, and then acting in a way you feel is supportive of that concept at a later time also gives you a neurological pat on the back.
The downside to this “contagious” caring is that it can work in reverse. Rude behavior has also been found to spread like a contagious pathogen, with people often inadvertently sharing a bad mood with other people, souring their future interactions as well. For example, people who have to engage with a rude partner are more likely to behave rudely with the next person they work with, even if they’re not aware of it. So even if a person is not consciously identifying with their first rude partner, they may end up trying to normalize to that behavior anyway.
It’s likely easier said than done, but the benefits of falling in with a good crowd are probably worth the effort.
Source: Kindness Contagion by Jamil Zaki, Scientific American