You’ve seen those commercials on TV where one person does something nice for someone, who in turn does something nice for someone else? While I have no idea what they’re selling, a study published recently in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that there is some evidence that there is a contagion effect for kindness! You really can Pay It Forward!

What the research shows is that we are potentially wired for contagious cooperative behavior, both good and bad (picture two scenes, one of looters during a riot, and one of strangers jumping into the sea to save a whale). When one individual allows another to, say, merge in front of them in traffic, that person is likely to allow the next three mergers he encounters to come in front of him, and so on, until you have an entire society of curteous drivers! All it takes is one person to start the chain.

The research was conducted by James Fowler of UC San Diego and Nicholas Christakis of Harvard, who also coauthored “Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives.” In the current study, Fowler and Christakis demonstrated that when one person was genrous with money in a “public-goods game,” the players benefiting from their generosity where in turn more likely to give their own money away. This kindness spreads first to three people, then to nine, then to 27 and so on.

An important part of the study was that both positive and negative behaviors followed a contagious path! We have the power to spread both good and bad in the world. So maybe just keep that in mind the next time you find yourself late for work and decide to not let that annoying person merge in front of you. Just don’t be surprised if the next time you’re trying to merge, you also get the short end of the stick. What goes around really does come around! Karma man!

Chris Tickner is a Pasadena psychotherapist, child therapist, and clinical supervisor practicing holistic psychotherapy, where he combines mindfulness psychotherapy,  somatic therapy, neuroscience, and good old fasion humor and compassion to form a a powerful treatment that is transformative and holistic.  There are thousands of California psychotherapists, and finding a counselor or finding a therapist can be daunting. On his website, Chris provides a primer to help you find the therapist that is perfect for you! Chris is also a Pasadena therapist specializing in anxiety psychotherapy and depression psychotherapy.