Our Altruism

By Catherine Ryan Hyde

This Money Has Been Used For Good!


Finding Our Altruism
(as Opposed to Never Losing It)

Posted by | Kindness Is Contagious, Pay it Forward | No Comments


In the mid-1990s, when I first wrote the novel Pay It Forward—the adult version on which the movie was based—I was laboring under a misperception about humans. I thought that as we grow up, we lose our altruism. And by lose I mean irreparably lose. I thought we started out youthful, glowing, and filled with kindness and goodness. Then, somewhere between kindergarten and high school, all that good stuff was quite thoroughly stomped or kicked out of us.

That’s why I made Trevor, the character who changes the world through simple acts of kindness, twelve years old. I thought this was something a grownup couldn’t—or at least wouldn’t—do. I thought grownups would come up with an idea like Pay It Forward, and then sit down with a pen and a legal tablet and list all the reasons why it would never work. Then, having talked themselves out of even trying, they would be relieved of the burden of changing the world. I could imagine the happy sighs of adult relief.

I was wrong.

I quickly learned that I was wrong by watching altruism wake up in grownups when they read the book or saw the movie. Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to take credit for anyone else’s altruism. And I’m not suggesting that lots of other factors aren’t at work inspiring people at the same time. But one conclusion is inescapable: You can’t awaken what’s irreparably gone. You can only awaken that which is merely sleeping.

Now I have a different theory about losing our altruism as we grow. I still  think we often lose it. But more the way we lose our car keys.

I’m not a psychologist, a scientist, or a researcher of any kind. I’m just a fiction author who’s been alive for a while and has spent much of that time observing human nature.

Here’s what I’ve seen.

As we grow, we want to fit in. We want to be loved and accepted. We want to avoid criticism. We want to learn about the world, so we can more safely make our way in it. So we look to those around us for signals.

Parents and teachers may not realize the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) messages they send regarding the world. Sometimes we feel overpowered and overwhelmed, unable to change the things that trouble us. We may not want to say—or even think—that we just don’t have the energy to try. So instead we pass a message on to kids: “That’s just the way the world is.” Kids are like sponges for knowledge of the world. It’s their job to soak it up. Tell them you can’t change anything, and they’ll not only believe you, they’ll prove you right.

How much of the world as we know it is a mass act of self-fulfilling prophecy?

At a certain age (in my own experience it was around middle school) we notice that the people around us are getting more… for lack of a better word… cool. We may have a spontaneous thought related to changing a situation through kindness, but by that age we’ve become careful about filtering what we say. We look at those around us, and they don’t seem to champion kindness. They don’t seem to think kindness is cool. We don’t stop being kind, in my opinion. We stop openly expressing it. We bury it down where no one can see. After a few years of that, it becomes the proverbial ring of car keys. We haven’t seen it for a while, and often wouldn’t quite know where to locate it if we tried.

But this is great news, in my opinion. We still have everything we need. We just have to do a little finding. And we have to get braver about saying the things we know are right. Even if the people around us aren’t saying the same.

My thoughts on social courage have evolved quite a bit lately. I used to think people should just push their way through fear and speak their minds, placing far less importance on any resulting criticism. I’m still not against that plan. But I think I was not taking into account how deep-seated these fears can be. The fear of being ostracized is a very primal thing. Again, I’m no expert, but it seems to trace back to that ancient tribal societal structure: To be forced out of the group is to die. That’s a big one. So maybe I was being dismissive to suggest people just buck up and speak. Maybe a better answer is to create safer spaces for people to speak. Surround them with the safety of knowing they are an accepted part of their society even when expressing new ideas.

Like radical kindness.

Which leads me to the upcoming book release that I hope might make a difference.

I am pleased—thrilled, actually—to announce that fourteen years after the publication of my novel Pay It Forward, Simon & Schuster will soon (August 19, 2014) release Pay It Forward: Young Readers’ Edition, edited for middle grade students.

One of my very few regrets in my career involved the age-appropriate “rating” of the original book. I wrote exclusively for adults at the time. I never imagined anyone but adults reading it. So it contains a fair amount of adult language and material. The American Library Association included it on its “Best Books for Young Adults” list in 2001, a stamp of approval for students 12-18. But parent sensitivity being what it is, most teachers won’t use it in the classroom unless students are at least 14 or 15. Which, let’s face it, is past the age when we’ve misplaced those altruistic car keys.

What if a book like this new Pay It Forward edition made its way into middle school curriculum just about everywhere? What if students were reading it and talking about it at that crucial age, the one during which the push is on to be “cool”? It might create a safer space for altruism. Students might be more comfortable expressing their feelings about kindness. They would have more support for altruistic thinking and actions.

Instead of having to relocate their altruism as adults, what if the next generations never had to put it in hiding in the first place?

What would happen when that generation moved into the workforce, the polling place, the government, the teaching professions? How much would their openly-displayed altruism change the world?

I don’t know, and I don’t know if anyone can accurately say they know. But we may be about to find out. And whatever happens, that can only be a good thing.

Photo by Christian

Good Virus At The Catalyst Leadership Conference

Posted by | Food for thought, Kindness Is Contagious, Success | No Comments

Watch David Gaz, director of Kindness Is Contagious speak about kindness and success at the Catalyst Leadership Conference. The title of his talk is “How incorporating kindness into your personal brand  can make you happier and more successful”.

If you would like to book David to speak about kindness and success at an event, email us HERE.

David Gaz, partner and creative director of the agency Ijhana, is a multi award-winning creative director, filmmaker and photographer. He has over 20 years of experience with major brands such as Levi’s, Sony, IBM, Xerox and Disney as well as world class museums and cultural centers such as Le Louvre, Le Musee d’Art Moderne, Le Centre Pompidou.

David’s work has been featured in Fast CompanyCommunication Arts (Including Cover), Graphis, Photo District News, The San Francisco Examiner Sunday Magazine, The Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine as well as The Huffington PostNOTCOTMy Modern MetThe Film ReelTokyo Eye, and countless other blogs.

Fairness On Wall Street

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Fairness On Wall Street, sounds like an oxymoron doesn’t it? But I think it is representative of the pressure of the super organism  on the individual. Why we as a species triumphs over we as an individual. And this is at the core of why kindness matters. This NY Times Blog Post struck me as significant because it represents one of the intrinsic reason that everything resets itself in favor of kindness – the outrage we all have to things that are unfair (when the cards are stacked against us). And given that the cards are ALWAYS stacked against us, the system is continually resetting itself. Sometimes it takes years, sometimes it takes decades and sometimes even centuries, but the reassuring thing is, no matter what the circumstances, no matter how bad things are, the system is alway trying to reset itself to become fair.

Two things struck me as important, the one who spearheaded the creation of a “fair” exchange, Brad Katsuyama, was described as “RBC nice”. And that once they created a “fair” exchange the big brokerage firms had no choice but to use them on a massive scale.

Click HERE to read a story  of Wall Street deceit and treachery and its inevitable return to fairness.

Via NY Times

Social Networks and the Spread of Altruism

Posted by | Making A Difference, Science, Social Networks | No Comments


Social networks and altruism are deeply inter-connected.  Each is required for the other.

In research that we have been conducting these past few years, we have explored how kind acts flow across social ties, and how social ties provide the substrate for inter-personal altruism.  If people never behaved altruistically towards one other, never reciprocated kind behavior, or, worse, were always violent towards one another, then social ties would dissolve and the social network around us would disintegrate.  Some degree of altruism and kindness, and indeed some degree of positive emotions such as love and happiness,[i] is therefore crucial for the emergence and endurance of social networks.  Moreover, once networks are established, altruistic acts – from random acts of kindness to a cascade of organ donation – can spread through them.

Charity is just one example of the goodness that can flow through networks.  About 89% of American households give to charity each year, and fundraising efforts often seem designed to capitalize on processes of social influence and notions of community embeddedness.  For example, bike-a-thons and walk-a-thons are organized both to engender a sense of community among participants and to encourage direct contact between participants and their friends and neighbors who sponsor them.  And organizations from hospitals to boy scout troops to small towns employ a kind of thermometer that is publicly displayed and that tracks charitable giving to their cause, implicitly saying: “look, all these other people gave money, now how about you?”  Indeed, surveys of people who have given money to diverse causes find that roughly 80% did so because they were asked to by someone they knew well.[ii]

In one demonstration of the spread of pro-social norms across such social connections, economist Katie Carman studied charitable giving to the United Way in 75,000 employees in a large American employer.  She found that employees gave more when they worked next to generous colleagues.  Cleverly, Carman studied what happened to employees’ giving if they were obliged to move from one location in the bank to another, and she found that when people were transferred from a location where others did not give much money to a location where they did, every $1.00 increase in the average giving of their nearby co-workers resulted in a $0.53 increase in their own contribution.[iii]  There are several possible mechanisms for this type of effect: others around us can provide information about how to give, can pressure the other to give, or can simply act as a role model for giving.

In our labs, we have done a number of experiments exploring the contagion of altruistic behavior through social networks more broadly, creating artificial social networks involving real people.[iv]  We know that if Jay is generous to Harla, Harla will be generous to Jay, in a kind of reciprocal altruism.  But what about “pay-it-forward” as in the Goodvirus project?  What if Jay is generous to Harla, will she be generous to Lucas?  We devised an experiment to evaluate this idea that altruism could spread from person to person to person.  We involved 120 college students in a set of games that lasted five rounds.  In each round, students were placed in groups of four, and we mixed the composition of the groups so that no two people were ever placed in the same group twice.  People could decide how much money to give to the group at a personal cost, and then we let them know at the end of each round what other people did.  When we analyzed their behavior, we found that altruism tends to spread and also that the benefits tend to be magnified.  When one person gives an extra dollar in the first round, the people in her group each tend to give about 20 cents more in the second round, even though those people have been placed in completely new and different groups, with different people!  When a person has been treated well by someone, she goes on to treat others well in the future.  And, even more amazingly, all the people in these new groups from the second round are also affected in the third round, each giving about five cents more for every extra dollar that the initial person in the first round spent.  Overall, we found that the social network acted like a matching grant, doubling the downstream benefits of what each person initially chose to give.

Whether people behave altruistically is also determined by the structure of the social network in which they are embedded.  One ingenious experiment documented a “law of giving” at an all-girls school in Pasadena, California.[v]  The investigators asked 76 fifth and sixth grade girls to identify up to five friends, which allowed them to draw the girls’ social network and ascertain which girls were each girl’s friends, friends of friends, friends of friends of friends, and so on.  They had the girls play a game in which each girl was asked how much she would share from a $6 amount with each of 10 other girls who were listed by name.  The girls were most generous with their friends and the amount given declined as social distance increased.  On average, the girls offered their friends 52% of the $6, friends of friends 36%, and friends of friends of friends 16%.  The best predictor of how much each girl gave was not any measured characteristic of either the givers or recipients – such as whether either girl was tall or short, had many or few siblings, or wore glasses or braces.  Instead, it was the degree of separation between the giver and the receiver.

Our studies of social networks over the years have convinced us that one of the deep purposes of social networks is to magnify whatever they are seeded with.  But they must be seeded.  And if we seed them with goodness, the network will take over, and foster a lot more of it.

Nicholas A. Christakis, MD, PhD
James H. Fowler, PhD
Co-Authors of Connected

Photo By Garrett Heath

[i] Coviello L, Sohn Y, Kramer ADI, Marlow C, Franceschetti M, et al. (2014) Detecting Emotional Contagion in Massive Social Networks. PLoS ONE 2014; 9: e90315. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0090315

[ii] Independent Sector, “Giving and Volunteering in the United States – 2001,” available at

[iii] K. G. Carman, “Social Influences and the Private Provision of Public Goods: Evidence from Charitable Contributions in the Workplace.”  Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research Discussion Paper 02-13, January 2003

[iv] J.H. Fowler and N.A. Christakis, Cooperative Behavior Cascades in Human Social Networks,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 2010; 107: 5334-5338.

[v] J. K. Goeree and others, “The 1/d Law of Giving,” (accessed March 4, 2009).


Positivity + Professionalism = Productivity!

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My name is Troy Kasting and I am an Assistant Principal at Creekside High School in St. Johns County, Florida. We are located south of Jacksonville in historic St. Augustine, Florida. I work for St. Johns County School District. For 5 consecutive years we have been the #1 school system in the state of Florida. I am conducting an inservice training for the non-instructional staff for our school system on March 14th. Non-instructional staff are folks like custodians, secretaries, cafeteria workers, paraprofessionals and the like. Our school district requires staff to routinely attend professional development. When I was asked if I would be willing to conduct a training I thought long and hard about it because frankly, I didn’t know what I could add to the usual panoply of educational inservice topics. I started thinking about a book that I think is an important one (or should be) for us as educators. It’s called The Power of Nice by Linda KaplanThis book is slight, but its message resonates like the ripples a stone creates when thrown in a pond. The more I started planning it around this book the more I started digging to find some sort of film to provide excerpts from. The problem was there really is no such film- that was until I stumbled on David’s film. He generously sent me a copy when I explained my purpose. I will incorporate the concepts within film and book into my training. I will also use our school system’s presentation of the 6 Pillars of Character we value. My goal is to create a growing group of people who understand the power of kindness and its long lasting effects and slowly change the culture of their individual schools.

Ok, so I wrote that a couple weeks ago and it didn’t get posted because I thought it was accidentally deleted. When I logged back in tonight it was there-in draft form still. Instead of deleting it I’m keeping it just to show what my intentions were for my inservice. This past Friday I delivered this inservice to a pretty big group of non-instructional staff. Included among the participants were bookkeepers, parapros, special education assistants, Head Start and pre-k staff, secretaries etc. I mentioned our school system’s accomplishments earlier. I believe this is as a result of a positive culture of inclusion and servant leadership. This message comes from our superintendent down to each school. I’ve been at several school systems before landing here and I can tell you they are not all equal in terms of culture. So I wanted to distill that cultural phenomena into a presentation and share this message with a group that typically doesn’t hear it. Before the inservice I stopped at Panera and dropped $60 on bagels, pastries, coffee, and OJ. This isn’t going to be reimbursed but I don’t care because I wanted to make this professional development experience a great one for them. I started the day off with us sharing where we worked and what we did at our schools. I then asked everyone to write down something positive about their supervisor, school and one other person. I also asked them to write down what the kindest thing anyone has ever done for them was. It was amazing because as we were going through the names and jobs it was pretty standard fare they’d all done countless times. But when we got to the positive comments and especially the kindness stories, there was a tangible change in the room. It was like the scales fell from everyone’s eyes. The defensive walls came down. People wanted to share their kindness stories. I shared. It was quite remarkable. So then I got into the main presentation. It’s a mix of the book, David’s film and my own material on professionalism (being a self starter, proactive etc). I also mixed in random slides of kindness messages I saw on Facebook or elsewhere. I played various snippets of David’s film Kindness is Contagious (totaling around 15 minutes). At the end of the inservice the participants applauded. And it wasn’t because it was over. ;-) Trust me when I tell you that I have been on both sides of these things for a long, long time and never has anyone ever applauded. I believe there is power in kindness and this message deeply resonated with them. It was like a long dormant live wire had been exposed. Afterward many of them waited to speak with me to thank me and ask me if I could present this message to their schools. I am now in the process of honing it, perfecting it more. When I was asked to take one for the team and do a day long inservice I dreaded it but now see this as a calling of sorts.



Photo By UWW ResNet