Take the folks in Union Grove, Wisconsin. In October, someone there paid the bill for the next customer at a McDonald’s drive-thru, starting a chain that lasted through 25 cars. It was, Newsweek reported, the largest such chain at that restaurant, where such things appear to happen regularly.
Or take the folks in tiny Otsego County, Michigan. A customer at a barber shop there paid for the person in the chair next to him earlier this month. That set off a chain that lasted through the week.
She’s onto something there.
Or consider the Butts family in New Hampshire. As USA Today reported this month, about 12 years ago, Krista Butts and her husband were having a hard time financially when a complete stranger paid for the haircuts their three little boys were receiving.
As strapped as she was, she didn’t keep the money. She and her boys decided to use it to help others, starting what has become a family holiday tradition. She took her kids to a Walmart, bought three $10 gift cards, and told them to look for strangers they felt might need one.
Now, they each commit to doing something nice for someone else each day in December every year. “We usually try to pay for at least one family's meal, we reward public servants with food and treats, drop off decorated wreaths, Christmas decorations or meals to neighbors or strangers," she told USA Today.
What does this have to do with fighting crime? That’s simple. Experts talk about the phenomenon of copycat crimes. Psychology Today describes this as “a criminal act that is modeled after or inspired by a previous crime…” The mass shooting at Columbine High School in 1999 had, by itself, inspired 74 similar plots or attacks in 30 states as of a year ago.
But, if this works in one direction, it also works in the other. Good deeds can inspire copycats, too.
That’s more than just a casual statement. A growing body of research proves it’s true. They just don’t qualify as news very often.
And that makes the Christmas season, with its emphasis on kindness and generosity, an important time of the year, indeed.
Writing for Scientific American this month, University of Texas at Austin Assistant Professor Amit Kumar discussed research he and Nick Epley of the University of Chicago have done on the effects of kindnesses performed for strangers. They found that most people tend to underestimate how much these are appreciated.
They performed several experiments involving about 1,000 people performing various acts of kindness, from writing random notes to family and friends to giving out cupcakes to strangers. Generally, the people receiving these kindnesses thought they were a bigger deal than those performing them.
This, he said, was because recipients tend to focus on the warmth they feel — a warmth givers often overlook. It should hardly be a surprise, then, that in another experiment, they found that people on the receiving end of kindness were more likely to give substantially, in return, to other strangers than those who had not received anything.
Kumar wrote that “the consequences of these acts may go beyond a single recipient: kindness can be contagious.”
This was similar to a study on generosity at Berkeley, which found that “generosity is contagious; it can propagate within social networks and workplaces.”
It inspires copycats, in other words.
The same is likely true for thoughtful Christmas presents, or even for something as simple as holding a door for a stranger or retrieving something someone has dropped.
Kumar said his research suggests more people don’t engage in kindnesses because they might not understand how warm it makes others feel.
“People generally want to perform kind actions — in fact, many of our participants noted that they’d like to do so more often,” he wrote.
The good news is that this is something each person has the power to do, regardless of circumstances. The better news is that it can be done any time of the year, not only in December.
But the best news is that, even if no one else ever knows about something kind you do, it will ripple through the community and, in ways perhaps much larger than you suspect, counteract something bad.