Paying it forward at a drive-thru — generosity, greed, and fire ants.

When was the last time a stranger did something nice for you, when they simply did not have to and there was nothing in it for them? When was the last time you did that for a stranger? I’m talking about those instances when not even in the least bit did you have to go out of your way, but you did, because something indescribable stirred inside of you enough to take action—and simply make someone else’s day better.

Nice moments like these, which are inevitably too infrequent, tend to be puzzling for scientists. After all, what is the evolutionary benefit of altruism? Maybe we can point to things like self-esteem boosts or increased levels of happiness, but giving away your valuable resources (e.g., time, money, etc.) to a stranger isn’t always the best plan when it comes to survival. On the other hand, screwing people over might make more sense if surviving depended heavily on having a hoard of assets.

Now, imagine you are pulling up to a drive-thru window for a snack when the cashier says, “Hi, there’s no charge for your order–the last customer paid for you.” After a brief internal celebration you may then be faced with a decision—do you ‘pay it forward’ like Haley Joel Osment and anonymously shell out some coin for the next customer, or are you just content with your free stuff and drive away? - Different Psychology

What if the next person ordered significantly more than you did? Being generous feels good, but suddenly that venti decaf iced macchiato is running you $19.73. That’s a lot of pressure for those who can’t afford this, and no one wants to be the one to break a chain of goodness, right? That could result in some serious cognitive dissonance.

Yet based on local news reporting, generalized reciprocity (the fancy name for ‘paying it forward’) seems to be a frequent occurrence. A bunch of stories (e.g., here, here, and here) have described long strings of generosity at establishments like Starbucks, sometimes continuing for over 50 customers in a row, each anonymously offering to pay for the next person in line.

On a glass-is-half-empty note, recent research published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology claims that generalized reciprocity is actually more common when it comes to passing on the bad stuff (e.g., greed) compared to the good stuff (e.g., generosity). Psychologists from UNC Chapel Hill and Harvard conducted a handful of experiments, but the basic premise was the same across each. Participants were given a sum of money, and were told that a previous (anonymous) participant had determined this amount.

Next, they were given the opportunity to split some additional money, keeping what they desired, and anonymously passing on however much they wanted to the next (anonymous) participant. Other versions of the experiment used labor instead of money, and included the splitting of either fun tasks or boring tasks. Regardless, participants were led to believe they were the link between two unknown others, and had the opportunity to pay it forward.

Indeed, those who received a generous amount of money from the last person (or the more preferable/fun labor tasks) were subsequently more generous compared to recipients of a greedy or an equal distribution. However, the condition that provoked the most pay-it-forward behavior was for greed. Participants who received a stingy amount of money (or only the undesirable tasks in the labor experiments) were significantly greedier than others when it was time to pay it forward, and this trend was stronger than in the generosity or equality conditions. - Different Psychology

It was believed that a stranger’s greed caused participants to experience negative affect (anger, sadness, etc.), and they took out these feelings on the next poor sap. Fortunately, the researchers demonstrated a caveat to this relationship! Participants were significantly less greedy if they were given an intervention to reduce their negative affect. Specifically, they were given cartoons to read, and were then less cruel to the next guy.

[Related: People Take Longer When They Know You’re Waiting. Jerks!]

There is actually a growing body of literature investigating altruistic behavior, and researchers have argued that multiple factors are at work here. For example, physiological studies have shown that simply injecting people with oxytocin makes them more generous compared to controls in a placebo condition. On the other hand, testosterone seems to have the opposite effect. There’s also research showing that helping behavior is conducted in order to look good in the eyes of potential romantic partners.

Perhaps more work is needed before we can specifically explain the Starbucks drive-thru behavior, but again, how would Darwin explain the paradox of anonymously giving away valuable resources to a stranger? Perhaps by looking at other animals we can see that altruistic behavior is beneficial to our survival—not for any one individual, but for the entire group.

Take fire ants, for example. These tiny creatures regularly engage in self-sacrifice for the well being of others.

Now to be fair, an individual ant is probably unaware of the impending death that might result from altruistic, group-favoring behavior. Even so, perhaps a lesson can be learned here: We are all in this together. Avarice can spread like wildfire—the psychologists conducting these studies are providing proof—but generosity can too, and the long line of customers at Starbucks is a real-life testament.

Happy New Year! May your 2013 be filled with positive generalized reciprocity!

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About the Author

has a Ph.D. in Psychology and enjoys writing in the third person.

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