Reprinted from the November 2004 issue of Science & Theology News. Used with permission

What goes around comes around.

This maxim can be either a good or a bad thing, depending on what you send around.

Some people argue that all human action is motivated by selfishness, an evolutionary need to get ahead. Yet, others, like Julie Juola Exline, head of the research group The Self as a Conduit of Love at Case Western Reserve University, believe that altruistic behaviors directed toward loved ones, strangers and even enemies make them behave altruistically toward others.

In order to test the effect altruistic acts have on people, Juola Exline and her colleagues used a few different tactics.

A preliminary study asked undergraduate students at Case Western Reserve University to think about two different situations in which they received acts of kindness: a time when the kindness was expected because of a close relationship to the giver, and a time when the kindness was unexpected because the giver was a stranger or an enemy.

"We found that, generally, people want to help others that are nice to them and are in their families," Juola Exline said. "But there seemed to be a slight tendency for people in that surprising condition, like `got help from a stranger' or something, to be a little more into the idea of helping a stranger or an enemy."

However, based on these preliminary findings, the results from the second study were not what researchers expected.

In this latter study, undergraduates were given $5 and split into three groups that were asked to recall different experiences. One group, which served as the control, was asked to recall their walk across campus. Another group recalled an act of kindness from a close friend or family member, and the last group recalled times when they received an act of kindness from a stranger or an enemy.

After the people recalled those particular instances, they were then given a choice of charities, to which they could donate $0 to $5 of the money they had been given. Contrary to what researchers predicted, those in the expected-kindness group gave more than the people in the unexpected-kindness group.

"What seemed to happen was, anything that people thought as part of their stories that brought up any kind of negative emotions, like guilt or obligation or shame, inhibited their giving," said Juola Exline.

She added that those who felt they had already repaid their act of unexpected kindness had less motivation to donate.

Whether or not people have received kindness in the past plays a huge role in determining whether or not they will behave kindly toward others in the future, she said.

"If you want people to do something like give to a charity, you want them to be in a really good mood," Juola Exline said. "You don't want to do anything that might make them feel bad or guilty, because reflecting on undeserved kindnesses sometimes makes people feel very grateful, but sometimes it makes them feel guilty."

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