Public Health

Giving May Be Contagious

The whole idea of social contagion is itself sort of contagious.

Money changes hands. i i

Altruism: pass it on. iStockphoto.com hide caption

itoggle caption iStockphoto.com
Money changes hands.

Altruism: pass it on.

iStockphoto.com

Everything from obesity to happiness to smoking moves through social networks, so the behavior of one person can affect the lives of many others.

Two of the people leading this charge are political scientist James Fowler of University of California, San Diego, and internist Dr. Nicholas Christakis of Harvard Medical School. They've had a hand in much of this work and really got the ball rolling with their take on data from the Framingham heart study, which documented how your social group can affect your health.

The Dynamic Duo, as some call them, just put out a new study which focused on a potential bright side of social contagion: kindness and altruism.

This time they looked at what happens when people participate in a game in which they are asked to give money to needy people they don't know directly. When one person gives money to help others, the recipients of that money are more likely to give their own money away in future games, the researchers found.

So, even a little pot of money can lead to a lot of giving, as the altruistic spirit ripples through a network. So, for example, let's say you play the game and give $16 to a person you don't know, prompting him to give $4 to another person who will, in turn, give $1 dollar to someone else. At that point, the research finds, the network effect more or less dies off.

The authors write that people mimic the behavior or others, spreading kindness from person to person, even though it was clear that the altruistic behavior didn't directly benefit themselves. The results were published online by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

We're hoping that peace and love just keeps rippling around the world. But some critics suggest that in much of the work, Fowler and Christakis are mistaking correlations for cause. Those critics argue, for example, that people who gain weight just tend to group with other people who gain weight, but that doesn't prove that social contagion is causing weight gain to move through the group.

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