New research shows helping others is as contagious as any virus

Contagions, pathogens, and viruses are on the forefront of everyone’s minds these days. Just a few months ago we were all touching our faces every other moment and sharing door handles with reckless abandon. The world is very different now, and we’re all hyper-aware of possibly catching something from someone else. 

Sometimes, though, it’s possible to pick up something beneficial from other people. Researchers from the University of Texas, Austin say cooperating and helping others is just as contagious as any virus. When we see someone else do something nice for another person, it motivates us to act similarly. This is especially true when we see the benefit for others first hand.

Their new study found that humans are easily influenced when it comes to prosocial behavior or actions that benefit all of society for the greater good. These findings are especially relevant given the current pandemic playing out before our eyes. If one person sees another helping the elderly with groceries, they’ll be more likely to engage in similar behavior. More broadly, even simple decisions like wearing a mask in public can “infect” others with the idea that they should too.

Whether any one person is willing to admit it or not, humans are an impressionable bunch. We see others acting in certain ways, and even if only subconsciously, it’s in our nature to internalize that behavior and mimic it later on. How many times have you seen a movie character do or say something only to find yourself acting similarly a few days later? 

“Just like the deadly virus, cooperative behavior can also be transmitted across people,” says Haesung (Annie) Jung, who led the study while earning a Ph.D. at UT Austin, in a university release. “These findings remind the public that their behavior can impact what others around do; and the more individuals cooperate to stop the spread of the disease, the more likely others nearby will do the same.”

For this project, the study’s authors reviewed decades worth of prior research on this subject matter. They discovered that when people see a “prosocial model,” which is just a fancy way of saying a good deed, they almost always go on to perform a good deed themselves at a later date.

Now, the actual good deed usually isn’t as contagious as the result it produces. For example, if someone sees another person donating face masks to people in need, they may feel more inclined to wear their face mask more often. It’s not the same action, but the result is the same: everyone’s a little bit safer.

“We found that people can readily improvise new forms of prosocial actions. They engaged in behaviors that were different from what they witnessed and extended help to different targets in need than those helped by the prosocial model,” Jung, who is now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, explains.

Of course, country and culture come into play here as well. Researchers noted that citizens of Asian countries are most likely to be influenced by acts of kindness, followed by Europeans and then North Americans.

It’s also important to mention that people are more motivated to help others if they see someone else benefit from an act of kindness, not themselves. This is noteworthy because it suggests people aren’t just doing more good deeds out of a sense of reciprocity or self-interest.

“Many people may choose to avoid social distancing practices because they don’t think they’re likely to contract the virus or experience serious symptoms. So, one of the best things we can do is frame recommended practices as prosocial actions,” concludes Marlone Henderson, associate professor of psychology at UT Austin. “By thinking of recommended practices as prosocial behavior, modeling then becomes a powerful tool for encouraging others to engage in such practices.”

Simple gestures like checking up on our neighbors or even just calling grandma to check up on her may feel inconsequential amid a pandemic, but these small acts of kindness add up. Just one good deed can have a domino effect that benefits dozens of people.

The full study can be found here, published in Psychological Bulletin.