As interns at R.AGE, we’ve noticed a pattern in the office: whenever one of us learns a nifty trick from a supervisor (e.g., how to make an Instagram filter), we giddily teach it to a fellow intern, who then passes this on to someone else. 

Why do we take time out of our (coffee-fueled, jammed pack) day to share a new skill with someone, with no apparent benefit to ourselves? 

One reason could be that we just enjoy nerding out. However, it’s also possible that we simply want to help our friend learn something that might come in handy, much like how our supervisor has helped us out.

Scientists and pop-culture have put a name to this phenomenon – it’s called paying it forward. When we benefit from an act of kindness, we become motivated to be kind to everyone else.

In 2014, these researchers set out to explore this concept in a series of studies. They randomly separated museum visitors into two groups: a pay-what-you-wish group and a pay-it-forward group. The first group could pay whatever amount they wanted to enter the museum. The second group was told that their admission had been paid for by a person before them, and that they could pay whatever they wanted for the next customer’s admission.

The researchers wanted to know: would receiving an act of kindness make people pay more for the next person’s admission?

Spoiler alert: it did. Participants in the pay-it-forward group paid an average of US$1 more than the pay-what-you-wish group.

Why are people more likely to help others out when they’ve received help from someone else? The researchers suggest that a powerful social norm of kindness was made obvious, which then compelled the participants to act kindly.

Other researchers have also investigated this phenomenon and offered another explanation called moral elevation. It’s that warm, fuzzy feeling you get when you watch someone else do something good for another person. That feeling moves us to help others out and inspires us to become better people. 

In the experiment, participants were either tasked with watching a video of someone commiting a kind deed, a neutral clip, or a comedy clip. Then, the researchers asked each participant to help them do a boring task, for no compensation. 

The study found that the group of participants who watched the video of the kind deed spent almost twice as much time on the boring task than the other participants. What’s more, the more moral elevation they had reported feeling, the longer they spent on the task.

This feeling explains why kindness can be in fact, contagious.

Another explanation could be that the emotion of gratitude inspires us to pay it forward.

How does it do that? Gratitude makes us feel more connected to others, blurring the boundaries between “them” and “us”, “helper” and “helped”. It reminds us that there is kindness in the world, and it’s something that any of us can easily tap into and share.

As you go about the rest of your day, remember how kindness continues to ripple on – from you to your friends, to your friends’ friends and so on. Your acts of kindness will travel further than you can today.