Thursday, May 12, 2016

Paying it forward: a look at random acts of kindness and chain reactions

IOWA CITY, IA – It was the most expensive chai latte I had ever purchased. On Wednesday, April 27, I spent $10 on a drink at Starbucks that normally would have cost me $4.19. As I handed over the bill, I said to the barista working the register, “Just put the rest toward the next order.”

“Oh! So nice! Thank you!” he responded with a smile on his face that hadn’t been there just five seconds earlier.

It was a dreary day in Iowa City. I figured a lot of people would duck into coffee shops for a warm drink for relief from the cold rain outside, so I chose that day to perform a random act of kindness.

The department of sociology at Old Dominion University, defines a random act of kindness as something one does for an unknown other that they hope will benefit that individual.

As I waited for my drink in the designated area, I watched the barista I had just paid. I assumed he would wait for the next person paying with a card or cash as opposed to those who use their Starbucks app to earn stars and rewards at the coffee chain. He let the next person after me scan his, so I knew I had assumed correctly.

The next customer in line ordered and attempted to hand the barista his card. I couldn’t hear what he said, but the barista held up his hand and smiled. The customer looked confused, surprised. Then a smile spread across his face, too.

He walked over to his friends who were already waiting to get their drinks. His face still held the look of astonishment, but the smile had not faded. I heard him say something like, “Someone paid for my drink,” and the three of them began to look around at the other people waiting.

I sheepishly walked up to him and said hello.

“Was it you?” he exclaimed. His voice rose a few levels, and his eyes widened. I nodded. “Oh my gosh, that’s so cool! Thank you so much!”

His name was Brayan Cisneros, and he’s a student at the University of Iowa. He went on to tell me what exactly had happened at the counter when he ordered. “The guy wouldn’t take my card and said that a woman in front of me left her change to cover the order behind me. I was mind-blown! Thank you. It made my day.”

It turns out Cisneros has never experienced a random act of kindness before, but he’s heard all about them.

“It’s never happened to me personally, but I’ve heard of it happening at like drive thrus and stuff.”

And now he’s more than willing to participate and perform random acts of kindness himself. Will he do something for someone else like he experienced in Starbucks that day?

“Absolutely. I’ve always considered it, but now I’ll actually do it.”

I had hoped that my small act would continue and create a chain reaction, but Cisneros didn’t keep it going. To be honest, I think he was too much in shock to realize what had just happened to even think about paying it forward. But that’s okay: I knew there was a chance the chain reaction would start and end with me.

But I had made Cisneros’ day, and that made it worth it.

There are a surprising amount of studies that have looked at how performing and experiencing random acts of kindness can affect someone. Many studies have also looked at how different people react to random acts of kindness.

A study by the sociology department at Old Dominion University studied the reactions of 122 people to a random act of kindness. Each person was given a flower, and then his or her reaction was recorded.

The study concluded that there is no significant difference in reaction by age; males tend to respond more negatively than females but react more positively when the giver is female; and there is a difference in reaction when the race of the giver is different from the race of the receiver.

Buying that coffee for Cisneros may have made his day, but it also made mine. Seeing the way he reacted to a free cup of coffee from a stranger, and the way he treated me when he found out I was the one who had paid made my day significantly better, instantly improving my mood.

Jennifer Glanville is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Iowa. Her research interests include social capital, pro-social behavior, and social networks. A lot of her studies focus on volunteering and generosity.

“There is research that indicates that just doing something nice for another person makes you feel good,” Glanville said. “So why not do it?”

And it’s not just that doing something nice for someone else can improve your mood temporarily. Research shows that people who do kind things for others are typically happier people in general, and performing these kind acts only helps to increase their mood. In fact, this works in a cyclical pattern.

Keiko Otake of the Department of Psychology at Tohoku Gakuin University in Japan suggests that kindness can cause happiness and that, to take this theory further, a reciprocal relationship may exist between kindness and happiness.

Lalin Anik of the Harvard Business School says something similar. According to Anik, “Happier people give more and giving makes people happier, such that happiness and giving may operate in a positive feedback loop (with happier people giving more, getting happier, and giving even more).”

Random acts of kindness can work in a cycle of their own. This phenomenon is known as a chain reaction or paying it forward. Glanville relates this idea to reciprocity.

“There’s direct reciprocity: I do a favor for you and expect that you’ll do a favor for me at some point. That’s just embedded in every relationship.

“But there’s another way of looking at reciprocity, which is generalized reciprocity. This is like I do something nice for some person, and I don’t expect that they’re going to directly give back to me, but they might give to somebody else, who gives to somebody else, and eventually I’ll be the beneficiary.”

The idea of paying it forward is not a new concept, but in the past two decades, the concept has seen an explosion in popularity. In 1999, Catherine Ryan Hyde published a book called “Pay It Forward,” which was adapted into a film two years later.

The story follows Trevor McKinney, a 12-year-old boy, who is given a social studies assignment of putting into action a plan that will change the world for the better. McKinney comes up with a plan called “Pay It Forward,” which consists of the recipient of a favor completing a favor for three others rather than paying back the favor. Eventually, according to McKinney, everyone will be affected and then pass it on.

In 2007, Blake Beattie was inspired by Hyde’s story and founded Pay It Forward Day.

“Some people were originally quite skeptical of the whole idea: they said that it was good in theory, but not in practice,” Beattie wrote on the Pay It Forward Day website. “I challenged this point of view believing that people are genuinely giving by nature, but many get caught up in the hustle and bustle of every day life. Pay it Forward Day is a time when each of us can get to experience the ‘Power of Giving’ and a massive, positive ripple effect continues as Pay It Forward cards travel around with each good deed that is completed.”

The Pay It Forward cards Beattie mentioned are used to track the number of kind actions passed along from person to person.

The front of the card explains the concept of paying it forward. The person who performs a good deed for a stranger passes the card along to the receiver of the card. The receiver is then encouraged to perform a random act of kindness for another person and continue to pass the card along.

The back of the card has 24 boxes, and everyone who receives the card is supposed to tick a box for every random act they perform. There are also a few examples of deeds people can perform for others.

Pay It Forward Day takes place every year on the last Thursday of April. This year, that fell on Thursday, April 28. At last count, the website said that there were over 5 million people from 78 countries ready to participate in the day.

It’s nice to think that there are people in the world who want to do kind things for others just because. But wouldn’t it be nice if everyone thought that way? So how do people become the kind of people who perform random acts of kindness for others or pay it forward or continue a chain reaction?

The department of sociology at Old Dominion University believes that individuals are more likely to engage in random acts of kindness if, as children, they witnessed their own parents and other adults in their lives participating in human kindness. Additional factors that influence participation include the number of other people around, the feeling of control over one’s own life, how assertive one is, and how good one feels about one’s self.

Glanville agrees that parents have a lot of influence when it comes to teaching children to perform random acts of kindness, but she says education may also play a role.

“Obviously it’s not just about what happens in the family,” Glanville said. “People have different prosocial orientations that can be informed by a myriad of things. Education, particularly people with higher levels of education. There are these arguments that education sort of exposes people to the problems that other groups of people have and gives them more of a lens, so that may be part of it.”

Glanville also said that chain reactions may be another result of prosocial behavior, or behavior that is oriented toward helping people or cooperating with other people in some way.

“There’s this idea that what goes around comes around. And so the idea there is that my decision to give in some way is sort of a well-placed decision because I expect that other people are behaving in that way.”

This idea can be seen in chain reactions, particularly those that take place in drive-thru situations.

Gabby O’Leary, a sophomore at the University of Iowa, worked at Caribou Coffee in Waukee, Iowa, when she was in high school and still works there when she goes home for breaks. This Caribou location has a drive-thru, and O’Leary said that they experience chain reactions in their drive-thru all the time. She even remembers the first time it happened while she was working.

“It was on a Saturday morning when we were really busy, and I was working the drive thru,” O’Leary said. “One of our regular customers handed us $20 for her $5 drink and said to keep the change and use it on the order behind her. The next customer was shocked and offered to pay, too, and it went on for probably an hour because there was always a line. I was surprised at how long it lasted and how many people were willing to pay for others’ orders.”

It seems the research is correct: when people receive a random act of kindness or see others performing these acts, they are more likely to pay them forward and create a chain reaction.

Two weeks later, I have no idea if Cisneros has paid the random act of kindness I performed for him forward. I didn’t give him a Pay It Forward card to remind him what kind of an effect a small act of kindness can have on another person or what kind of an effect a chain reaction can have on the world. But I don’t think he needs a card to remember that. Acts of kindness – both those that we perform and those that are performed for us – stay with us and show us what a beautiful world we could live in if everyone paid it forward.