The takeaway is that if you are not going to be mindful of what you are doing 24/7 why don’t you make helping people a default reaction. Remember maybe helping one people directly may mean really helping 2-3 people.
Consider the following experiment conducted by Monica Bartlett and myself. We brought people into the lab and set up 2 situations: One in which they confronted a problem which would require them to complete an onerous task and one where they didn’t face any problem. In the first case, a confederate, at some cost to herself in terms of time and effort, helped the participant solve the problem, which led to measurable feelings of gratitude. In the second, the confederate was just another person in the session.
After leaving the lab, all participants just happened to encounter someone asking for help on a different onerous task. This person was either the known confederate (labeled benefactor in the figure) or someone who was a complete stranger.
Looking at the first two bars, you can see that grateful participants helped the known confederate much more than neutral participants.
Ok, I know what you’re thinking. This doesn’t prove anything! They may just be following a reciprocity norm. Fair enough. But look at the second set of bars. If it were really reciprocity, then no increased helping should occur when a stranger requests help, as participants don’t owe this stranger anything. Yet, those who were feeling grateful still helped more. Simply put, gratitude functioned to push people to acquiesce to requests for help — even onerous ones from unknown others.
Importantly, another study showed that if we reminded the participants before they left that they were helped by the confederate, they didn’t help the stranger any more than control participants. By binding the emotional state so saliently to one person, it couldn’t be misattributed as a cue to help another, thereby indicating that the increased helping isn’t just adherence to a “pay-it-forward” norm. Yet participants still were paying-it-forward.