Paying it Forward: On Generalized Reciprocity

Gluecksschweine_kleinWhat is the “paying it forward”-principle?

Basically, it´s the opposite of “paying it back”. Most theories about human nature assume that we are a pretty selfish bunch. We´re supposed to play the “tit for tat”-game – which roughly means “I rub your back, so you rub mine”. More generalized: We´re nice to people that have been nice to us – and vice-versa. Another, slightly less selfish version is: I´m nice to you because you´ve nice to someone I´m affiliated with.

Paying it forward runs counter to this intuition. In practical terms, it means, e.g., paying a coffee for a person you don´t no at all, just by leaving money at the counter and instructing the barista to tell the next customer that her tall decaf white soya moccacino has already been taken care of. Ideally, this will put the person in good/grateful mood which makes it more likely that this person will be nice to others in return, thereby creating a ripple effect of reciprocity (please have a look at this really cool video to have a glimpse at what this could look like).

In scientific terms, this process is called generalized reciprocity. Accordingly, we´re not being nice to someone specific, but rather to “the public” – because this general entity has been nice to us. If you want to see how far this principle can go, please watch Prof. Wayne E. Baker´s TEDx talk on this topic. Among other things, he talks about a long-lasting chain of kidney donations, where people gave a kidney to complete strangers – as a result of feeling gratitude because another stranger had donated a kidney to someone in their families.

Now, those scientists who think we´re a selfish bunch believe that people use the “pay it forward”-principle mainly for non-altruistic reasons, e.g., to create a favorable image vis-à-vis other relevant people. And while this may partly be true, it´s not the end of the story.

Together wit a colleague, the aforementioned Prof. Baker published a paper by the name of Paying It Forward vs. Rewarding Reputation: Mechanisms of Generalized Reciprocity. In an organizational setting, the researchers are able to show that people do engage in both types of behaviors: Helping other and then hoping that those who have witnessed the positive behavior will be helpful in return (rewarding reputation) – and the unconditional, more general type where we help people “just because”. They also find that the generalized reciprocity creates stronger ripple effects in the long run (here’s a nice summary of the paper).

In the words of the researchers:

We conduct the first-ever critical test of two key mechanisms: paying it forward and rewarding reputation. These are fundamentally different grammars of organizing, either of which could sustain a system of generalized reciprocity. In an organization, paying it forward is a type of organizational citizenship behavior (OCB) that occurs when members of an organization help third parties because they themselves were helped. Rewarding reputation is a type of OCB that occurs when peers monitor one another, helping those who help others and refusing to help those who do not. Using behavioral data collected from members of two organizational groups over a three-month period, we found that reputational effects were strongest in the short term but decayed thereafter. Paying it forward had stronger and more lasting effects.

Ain’t that nice… 🙂

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