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Pay It Forward

A nice idea (and good movie), or a real thing?

Just as the media colors the world that we live in, we also impact our environments with the way that we look, act, and treat people. Just like our body language and behaviors change pieces of the environment which then affect other people, we can also directly impact other people, who then make changes that affect the environment. How very circular!

The way that we treat people can make or ruin their minute, hour, day week, and so on. They carry our actions with them, in their words, body language and actions. When we treat people poorly, well, bad things happen. But when we treat people well, well, wonderful things happen.

If you have already read the book or seen the Haley Joel Osment classic Pay It Forward, the following will seem like review. For everyone else, a quick overview:

The Pay-It-Forward effect, first described by Catherine Ryan Hyde, describes a Dominoes-like phenomenon, where a single act of kindness creates a cascade, or chain reaction of kindness. In such a phenomenon, the person who receives the initial kindness pays it forward (as opposed to back to the original kindness doer) to a stranger, and the chain continues from there. In theory, the act of kindness can be anything from paying for the person behind you in line’s coffee or in more extreme cases, donating a kidney.

This phenomenon has a profound impact on our environments in that they create a sense of connectedness and positivity. When we feel connected to each other, we are kinder, more patient, and more supportive. We take better care of our communities and even think more collectively as opposed to individualistically. As we’ve already seen, these kinds of changes can produce huge effects.

Testing the Pay-It-Forward Effect

Although the Pay-It-Forward stories make for great, feel-good headlines, many people have wondered whether such a thing really exists. All it takes is one person to break the chain, so how long can these things really last? Turns out, they can last for a while (see coffee link above!). But what matters isn’t necessarily how long the chain lasts in and of itself. What matters is the impact it has on those involved.

Researchers at the University of California Riverside led by then-Ph.D. candidate Joseph Chancellor looked at whether the Pay-It-Forward effect actually exists, and how much difference, if any, it makes in people’s actual lives. In Chancellor’s study, people in a workplace were separated into three groups: Givers, Receivers and Controls. The Givers were randomly assigned kind tasks to do for receivers, unbeknownst to the Receivers. Controls were simply people in the workplace who were neither Givers or Receivers to provide a baseline for comparison. This is what they found:

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The Pay-It-Forward effect is very real, and it has lasting benefits.

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What we do matters, even the little things. Kindness begets kindness—even little things. You don’t have to be able to move a mountain to make a difference. Kindness snowballs. Just get the ball rolling and watch it get bigger as it moves along.