Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

An anecdote that illustrates the tremendous power of human network reciprocity

Posted 13 Sep 2013 / 0

NPR Morning Edition StoryCorpsHow One Man Continues To ‘Just Pass It On’

The story of this man’s life and how he has reacted to the kindness of a stranger nicely encapsulates the very powerful nature of human network reciprocity. Rather than focusing on “repaying the kindness”, Thomas Weller was charged to “pass it on”. And, based on this story, pass it on he has: the kindness he has extended to strangers has far surpassed what was extended to him so many years ago (although I guess one cannot place a value on having one’s life saved).

I particularly like the part where Weller explains that he sees helping others as “helping himself”. Clearly he cannot mean this in a strictly instrumental sense: as his help is not reciprocated by the strangers who he helps, he is not gaining anything tangible from these interactions. He seems like a “true altruist”, one who is paying a cost to provide a benefit to another person. But psychologically he is — arguably — the person who comes away with the greatest benefit. That helping others feels so good to at least a substantial fraction of the human population is telling, because psychological rewards should have evolved to incentivize behaviors that benefited us in the past. Our brains seem designed to propel us towards network reciprocity.

I definitely plan to use this little story to motivate discussion in my Evolution of Cooperation class when I introduce the topic of network reciprocity.

A Minor Post, Behavior, Cultural Evolution, Evolutionary Psychology, Human Uniqueness, MSCI-463, The Evolution of Cooperation, Radio & Podcasts, Reciprocity, Social Networks, Social Norms

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