It Pays to be Nice

The September 10, 2009 issue of Newsweek included a brief article by Sharon Begley entitled It Pays to Be Nice. The article discusses a recent study published by David DeSteno, a professor at Northeastern University, that shows that economic cooperation is improved when subjects feel a sense of gratitude. For the study, researchers required half of the volunteers to take a complicated test on a computer. At the end of the test, the computer suffered a fake meltdown and these volunteers were told that they would have to re-take the test. At this point other volunteers (who were actually research assistants in disguise) stepped in and fixed the computers, saving the test results.

The volunteers who had suffered the computer meltdown and those who had not were all required to participate in a subsequent exercise in which they were each given four one dollar bills. They were all told that each bill was worth $1 to them and worth $2 each to their assigned partner. In some cases the volunteers were told that their partner was the person who had helped them with the computer and in other cases they were told the partner was a stranger. The volunteers were asked to decide how many bills to give to the partner and told that the partner was making the same decision in the other room. From an economic point of view, the partnership would be best off if each partner gave all four bills to each other (for a net profit of $16). An individual participant, however, would be best off if he kept all four bills and received an additional four bills from the partner (giving him a profit of $12) but the net profit for the partnership would be lower than in the first case.

The researchers found that the group of volunteers who had been helped with the computer gave their partners 25% more money than those who did not receive help, regardless of whether the volunteer believed their partner was, in fact, the person who had helped them.

This research showed that people who felt a sense of gratitude were more willing to sacrifice some personal gain for the good of the group. This is useful information in an economic context but can be even more significant in the context of the workplace. Just as the partners who gave each other the maximum number of dollar bills enjoyed the maximum profit, organizations do best when their members tie their personal success to the success of the company instead of competing for purely individual gain. This can take the form of working less desirable shifts or being more engaged in the tasks given instead of doing the bare minimum required to collect a paycheck.

It follows then that the best way for organizations to get the most out of their members is by simply being nice and instilling an honest feeling of gratitude toward the organization.

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