A new research by American Psychological Association suggests that with money or work, people are more likely to look out for themselves.
Paying it forward - a popular expression for extending generosity to others after someone has been generous to you - is a heartwarming concept, but it is less common than repaying greed with greed, the study said.
"The idea of paying it forward is this cascade of goodwill will turn into a utopia with everyone helping everyone. Unfortunately, greed or looking out for ourselves is more powerful than true acts of generosity," said lead researcher Kurt Gray, PhD.
The study is the first systematic investigation of paying forward generosity, equality or greed, according to the researchers.
"The bulk of the scientific research on this concept has focused on good behavior, and we wondered what would happen when you looked at the entire gamut of human behaviors," said Gray, an assistant professor of social psychology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, who conducted the study with researchers at Harvard University.
In five experiments involving money or work, participants who received an act of generosity didn't pay generosity forward any more than those who had been treated equally. But participants who had been the victims of greed were more likely to pay greed forward to a future recipient, creating a negative chain reaction. Women and men showed the same levels of generosity and greed in the study.
In one experiment, researchers recruited 100 people from subway stations and tourist areas in Cambridge, Mass., to play an economic game. They told participants that someone had split 6 dollars with them and then gave them an envelope that contained the entire 6 dollars for a generous split, 3 dollars for an equal split, or nothing for a greedy split.
The participants then received an additional 6 dollars that they could split in another envelope with a future recipient, essentially paying it forward.
Receiving a generous split didn't prompt any greater generosity than receiving equal treatment, but people who received nothing in the first envelope were more likely to put little or nothing in the second envelope, depriving future recipients because of the greed they had experienced. The average amount paid forward by participants who received a greedy split was 1.32 dollars, well below an equal split of 3 dollars.
The results confirmed the researchers' hypothesis that greed would prevail because negative stimuli have more powerful effects on thoughts and actions than positive stimuli. Focusing on the negative may cause unhappiness, but it makes sense as an evolutionary survival skill, Gray said.
The study also examined whether people would have similar reactions involving work rather than money. The results were the same, with greed being paid forward more than generosity.
The research was published online in APA's Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.