Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Coins, Cookies, and Kindness

Been thinking about Isen and Levin's psychology experiments on kindness from the early 70's. In one experiment, a confederate handed out cookies to random students in a university library. Some time later, another confederate asked students in the library -- both those who received cookies and those who didn't -- whether they would be willing to give up twenty minutes to help with a psychology experiment. In the second experiment, a phone booth* was randomly stocked with a dime in the coin return. After a caller had completed a call, a confederate walking by the phone booth "accidentally" dropped a manila folder full of papers. In both cases, a statistically significant additional number of people agreed to help the psychology student and the person picking up the papers after having experienced good luck. When someone has done something nice for us or when the universe has given us a good turn, we are more likely to be thoughtful and kind.

If our behavior is so influenced by our surroundings, it raises a couple of questions. The obvious one which we've played with before is how much praise or condemnation do people deserve for being or not being thoughtful if we are not completely free agents? But knowing the effects of social psychology, should we set up society in a way that makes the best use of it? Of course, people who get used to having things done for them acquire a sense of entitlement and expect it, so the acts must continue to be thought of as random kindness. How could we harness this to make the world a better place?

*For younger Playground readers, a phone booth was a small closet-sized enclosure made of glass that contained a large telephone into which one would insert coins in order to make a call.