Paying it forward - a popular expression for extending generosity to others after someone has been generous to you - is a heartwarming concept, but it is less common than repaying greed with greed, according to new research.
"The idea of paying it forward is this cascade of goodwill will turn into a utopia with everyone helping everyone," said lead researcher Kurt Gray.
"Unfortunately, greed or looking out for ourselves is more powerful than true acts of generosity."
The study is the first systematic investigation of paying forward generosity, equality or greed, according to the authors.
"The bulk of the scientific research on this concept has focused on good behaviour, and we wondered what would happen when you looked at the entire gamut of human behav-iours," said Dr Gray, an assistant professor of social psychology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, who conducted the study with researchers at Harvard University.
In five experiments involving money or work, participants who received an act of generosity didn't pay generosity forward any more than those who had been treated equally.
But participants who had been the victims of greed were more likely to pay greed forward to a future recipient, creating a negative chain reaction. Women and men showed the same levels of generosity and greed in the study.
"We all like to think that being generous will influence others to treat someone nicely, but it doesn't automatically create a chain of goodwill," said Professor Gray.
"To create chains of positive behaviour, people should focus less on performing random acts of generosity and more on treating others equally - while refraining from random acts of greed."
The study was published this month in the American Psychological Association's Journal of Experimental Psychology.