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Does It Pay to be Kind to Strangers?

Science has shown us that people who are generous and altruistic are happier and healthier than people who aren’t, no matter what economic class they belong to. But it’s not as easy to be kind to strangers as you’d think. Everyday people are often suspicious of acts of kindness, especially from someone they don’t know. Psychologist Sandi Mann, who is studying the “pay it forward” phenomenon, found this out firsthand when she tried to give away an extra coffee at the cafe when it came with her child’s breakfast. No one wanted to accept it!   

It was only once she framed the act differently, so that it seemed more logical, and less altruistic, that their attitudes changed. “Suddenly it was a different story altogether – it made perfect sense that my kid won’t drink coffee.” They still refused, but “the suspicion vanished, and there were smiles, and thanks”. Eventually it was accepted by a lady named Rochel, who subsequently found an opportunity later in the week to treat someone else.

That initial mistrust was a common theme for each of the following 13 days – in which she tried to offer strangers an umbrella on a rainy day, pay for someone’s parking ticket, and let fellow shoppers jump ahead of her in checkout queues. “Suspicion was the strongest reaction throughout,” she says. Each time, it was only when she offered a rational explanation – such as the fact she was waiting for someone at the checkout – that people would accept her offers. Looking back, Mann now explains it as “stranger danger”. “We’re brought up to expect strangers to put one over us,” she says.

It’s true that we often mistrust strangers bearing gifts, because we don’t want to suffer the fate of the Trojans. And free gifts so often come with strings attached. But there may be other forces at work, like a feeling we don't deserve something free, or an unwanted implied obligation to pay it back or forward. And research also tells us that spite and greed are more contagious than kindness- which only makes the effort of spreading kindness more crucial. Read more about the research on kindness and generosity at BBC Future. -via Digg

(Image credit: Flickr user Heath Brandon)

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