I’ve been thinking a lot about altruism ever since the horrible devastation in Haiti. In the aftermath, the world contributed millions of dollars of aid. From the US alone, $220 million was raised in the first week.
The first week!
And this at a time when our national unemployment rate was in double-digits. While pondering this generosity, I came across a new study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Researchers James Fowler, PhD from UC San Diego and Nicholas Christakis, MD, PhD from Harvard have provided the first laboratory evidence that altruistic behavior can be influenced and spread.
They gathered together groups of strangers to play a series of games. In each game, individuals were given a set amount of money they could either keep or contribute toward a group or “public good” project.
Each game started with a new mix of total strangers. Because subjects never played more than one game with each other, the results were not tainted by familiarity or possible reciprocity between participants.
Drs. Fowler and Christakis found that players were influenced by the generosity of the others around them.
Even more exciting, they also found that observing altruistic behavior from one game led to the adoption of generous behavior in subsequent games by a significant number of players.
And, this positive influence ended up working exponentially, spreading to three stages of separation from person to person to person.
I have to admit, this study left me with tantalizing dreams – what could we end up achieving if only we could harness an epidemic of kindness and cooperation?
These experiments show the extent to which cooperation can work, but where does this cooperative spirit come from?
We are nearing the end of our series on The New Brain Science but can’t finish without hearing from Louis Cozolino, PhD. My talk with him helped me to understand how brain structures and processes affect our ability to become emotionally and spiritually connected.
We’ve put together a brief video of his work on the neuroscience of relationships: