Pay it forward or die: How to conquer the forces of Eeeeeviiiilll

One who does good, My friend, is never overcome by evil. So don’t be conquered by evil. Conquer evil with good. Keep giving and even the miser will follow your lead.

Humans are built for giving. Our happiness depends on our ability to give without recieving. The pursuit of happiness is the only explaination for why someone will pay the bridge toll for the stranger in the car behind them, or buy an extra cup of coffee for the next person in line. If someone pays forward a cup of coffee to a stranger, that stranger will be inclined to pass on a similar gift to another stranger either then or sometime thereafter.

When we give in a way that can’t be paid back, we prompt others to do the same. Reciprocation is when one gives back a benefit equal to the one they recieved. When the one who gave can’t be repaid, the recipient will pass on a similar benefit to someone else. The effect is that a gift takes on multiple lives as it moves from one person to the next.

One study revealed that pay it forward behavior is the result of instinct instead of culture or training. Humans pay a gift forward out of a tendency to re-enact what was previously done to them. In this study two separate groups were compared, the one with capuchin monkeys and the other with four-year-old children. This is because capuchin monkeys and children under the age of five share a limited cognitive capacity to identify with the states and feelings of others. The purpose for this selection was to rule out sentiments of gratitude (or guilt) as an influence in responses to generous treatment. Instead, results would be based on the reactions of inherintly selfish actors. This is how capuchin monkeys and four-year-olds uniquely qualified for parallel observations in this study.

To test this, capuchin monkeys took turns as givers and recievers. They had a choice between sending a fellow monkey a grape or a leaf of spinach. The monkeys preferred grapes, and when they were given grapes, they were more than likely to choose to give a grape to the next monkey in line. The same study was repeated with four year olds, but instead of grapes, they got super cool stickers.

The results were similar for both groups. A capuchin that recieved a positive gift paid forward a positive gift 80% of the time. When they recieved a negative gift, they paid forward the same 75% of the time. Children passed on good treatment 70% of the time. Bad treatment was passed on 80% of the time.

What do these outcomes mean? The results are best explained by a give-what-you-get mechanism. They show that paying forward behavior has to do with a tendancy toward imitating each other. This means that generosity is the result of generosity. When we’re treated well, we tend to treat others well — we pay it forward. When treated badly, we tend to treat others badly. How we treat someone is the best predictor of how they’ll treat others. This is why when we give a gift that can’t be repaid, the same act is likely to be repeated by the recipient toward another. When a stranger gives to a stranger in a way that can’t be repaid, it’s certain that another stranger, whoever they may be, is next in line to benefit.

Generosity is not something that’s taught. It’s an action that’s imitated. It is a cardinal trait of being human: To give is human; to love is human. By giving without expectation or need for reciprocation, we proliferate the phenomenon of humanity.

Charity is an automatic response to charity. If we have been recipients of benevolent gifts, we are inclined to become benevolent givers. The urge to reciprocate is irresistible. Only fear and faithlessness will hold someone back from paying a gift forward. But fear and faithlessness are best met with kindness and generosity. There’s no sense in shaming or excluding anyone from generous giving if they don’t give generously themselves. They’re the ones that need our charity the most.

Originally published at on January 13, 2017.