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By Alyssa Coltrain and Rhiannon Menn

At this point, the idea of pay-it-forward is a fairly common idea. Whether from the 1999 novel  Pay It Forward orthe 2000 film by the same name, or viral stories of drive-through lines, : pay-it-forward has been steadily gaining popularity. The idea of paying it forward is that the recipient of a kind deed, rather than reciprocating directly to the giver, instead “pays it forward” by showing kindness to others. 

This phenomenon is often called “upstream reciprocity” or “generalized reciprocity” in studies of positive psychology, manifesting in incidents like a Tim Hortons in Winnipeg, where drivers picked up the order of the person ahead of them 228 times. But why do people do it? A range of psychological studies suggest that the answer is gratitude. Gratitude is not only a product of helping behavior –  that is, an emotion we feel after being helped by someone else –  but can also be a cause of helping behavior. A 2006 study from Monica Bartlett and David DeSteno of Northeastern University shows that the recipient of a generous act is not only more likely to help their benefactor, but also to help strangers. In this study, subjects were asked to complete a computer-based task. Those who received assistance in this taskwere more likely to help their benefactor when asked for help in return – this seems natural (‘I scratch your back, you scratch mine’). However, in a second part of the experiment, subjects were also more likely to assist a stranger. In the Bartlett and DeSteno study, the request for aid happens mere minutes after feeling the emotion of gratitude. This suggests a direct link between the emotion of gratitude and the desire to pay it forward to another person, known or stranger.

Here at Lasagna Love, we have a slightly different model. The opportunity to “pay it forward” is less immediate than in a Tim Hortons drive-through line, where receiving your free double espresso caramel latte and choosing to pay for the car behind you happens just a few moments apart.

So what happens when someone is a recipient of an act of kindness with no immediate opportunity to pay it forward? 

At Lasagna Love we believe that feeling of gratitude is sticky beyond mere moments, but we wanted to prove it.. We reached out to some of the recipients of the 200,000+ lasagnas that we’ve delivered over our two-year tenure. The results were clear. Lasagna Love works to create a network effect of kindness, starting with our 30,000 active volunteers. Not only did 98% of our recipients say they were inspired to pay it forward, but 21% paid it forward within days. Another 45% had made specific plans to do so in the future. Most often, these recipients wanted to pay it forward in kind, either sharing a meal or donating food to another struggling family. Many of these plans included coming to Lasagna Love itself as a volunteer. Others went grocery shopping for an elderly neighbor, or created opportunities for play for local children.  Essentially, almost every single person from our survey who received a single act of kindness, committed to going on to do something kind for someone else. Imagine, if those recipients of the secondary act of kindness then  went on to do kind acts for someone else? And then those people went on to do something kind?

That is a lot of kindness that stemmed from one single act of kindness. It turns out that research in positive psychology supports what our survey revealed, and then some. In 2011, Yen-Ping Chang, Yi-Cheng Lin, and  Lung Hung Chen from National Taiwan University and National Taiwan Sport University wanted to explore ongoing chains of upstream reciprocity. Studies like Bartlett and DeSteno only look at one instance. They wanted to know if it was possible to create ongoing change — a network effect of kindness. 

Using 174 students at the National Taiwan University as subjects, Chang, Lin, and Chen analyzed the social dynamics of groups and how individuals gave and received assistance within their group. The results suggest that the “gratitude broadens individuals’ perspectives of their current environment and causes them to transfer the goodwill that they received to other people they will encounter in the future. Furthermore, the action of transmission will replicate itself and eventually influence the structure of a given social network.” Ultimately, kindness not only inspires others to pay it forward, but could have an impact on a much larger scale. 

Bartlett and DeSteno could only look at one interaction. Chang, Lin and Chen could only work with their students, and we only have our volunteers and our recipients to attest to how they have both received and given kindness. However, we aren’t alone in being hopeful about the impact of kindness and paying it forward. Blake Beattie began Pay It Forward Day in 2007, which has grown to be a global phenomenon. Our own organization began in 2020, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and has since grown to three countries. Human beings are hungry for kindness and the power it has to transform our communities. We need only to present individuals with that first opportunity, and the power of gratitude will take care of the rest.   So: let us each do our part to make the world a better, kinder place one step, coffee, or lasagna at a time. 

  Bartlett MY, DeSteno D. Gratitude and Prosocial Behavior: Helping When It Costs You. Psychological Science. 2006;17(4):319-325. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2006.01705.x

Chang, Yen-Ping & Lin, Yi-Cheng & Chen, Lung. Pay It Forward: Gratitude in Social Networks. Journal of Happiness Studies. 2011; 13 (10). doi:10.1007/s10902-011-9289-z. 



About Alyssa:

Alyssa Coltrain began volunteering with Lasagna Love in January 2022, but quickly knew she had found her way to serve. Raised in a family that saw food as love, Alyssa earned her Ph.D. in Literatures in English from Rutgers University in 2019, and has been working as a writer, educator, and student advocate ever since.