One of the positive side effects of the COVID-19 pandemic is that we are all being asked to think about other people, not just ourselves. The highly infectious virus has made us aware that our actions have consequences that can affect people we don’t know, particularly those who are especially vulnerable to the novel coronavirus because of their age or underlying health conditions. The fact is, a study finds, people want to help each other, even if it costs them something.

Choosing to act in a certain way because it helps others, even if it comes at a personal cost, is known as prosocial behavior. A current example might be when people are being asked — or in some cases told — to wear a mask even though it may not be comfortable or convenient; or when they skip an extra trip to the grocery store because they forgot something, so as not to create a greater potential for exposure to themselves or others.

“This shows us that nice people can finish first by banding together and reaping the benefits of prosocial behavior.”

The pandemic has strengthened this perspective, particularly when it comes to health. We are now better able to understand how our health choices can affect others. “We are usually not asked to think about how our health-related actions have consequences for strangers,” Brent Simpson, corresponding author of a new study of prosocial behavior, told TheDoctor.

Social scientists had already identified four motives people have for helping others: people who receive a kindness often want to do something for the person in return; they may decide to do something for someone they saw being nice to another person; they may want to do something nice in the presence of friends who would reward that kindness; or they might want to “pay it forward” to others if someone has been kind to them.

“We wanted to see what the effects of these motivations would be when combined, because they are combined in the real world, where people make choices about how generous and kind to be with one another,” said David Melamed, lead author of the study and an associate professor of sociology at Ohio State, in a statement. So the team of researchers, from The Ohio State University and the University of South Carolina, undertook what they believe is the first study of how these altruistic motives interact with one another

Kindness is Contagious, Too

About 700 people were enrolled in the online study. Each participant was given 10 points and had to decide how much of their allotment to give to other participants. Each point had monetary value, and giving up points came at a cost. The researchers found that people would help others who helped them, and also reward others for helping someone else.

People who receive a kindness often want to do something for the person in return, or help someone else.

Many social scientists take the somewhat cynical view that people focus primarily on themselves, rather than what is happening to others. So the extent to which participants helped those who had helped strangers, even when they were given information about who helped them, was surprising. “The tendency among participants to focus on others, not just on themselves, is contrary to certain models of human behavior,” said Simpson, a professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina.

Simpson and his team are currently doing similar web-based studies that examine bigger social networks. “What we want to do is look at how more prosocial people integrate themselves into different parts of the network,” he said. “This can show us that nice people can finish first by banding together and reaping the benefits of prosocial behavior.”

The study is published in Science Advances.