Find Mediators Near You:

Pay It Forward

From the Mediation Matters Blog of Steve Mehta.

Recently, I went to a Starbucks and was pleasantly surprised by what happened to me. I immediately realized the power of the act as it happened. However, what I didn’t know is how fast that act would then spread in the Starbucks.

I stood in line to order my tall chai tea latte and went to pay the bill. The barista refused to take my money. She then said that the person before me had paid for my coffee. I turned around to see who that generous person was and caught a glimpse of her red hair as she walked out of the Starbucks.

I was so touched by this woman’s kind gesture to a complete stranger, that I decided to “pay it forward.” (For those of you who are not familiar with that phrase, there was a movie starring Haley Joel Osment where he decides to do a favor for three people. When they asked if they could repay the favor, he asks them to pay the favor forward to three other people. The concept takes off and spreads like wildfire.)

I decided to buy the next three people their coffee by simply paying $25 and letting it be used up by the next customers. Soon, the Starbucks was crammed with people paying it forward. I later learned the next day that that one lady’s act spurred five straight hours of generous acts of from customers to complete strangers.

Well recently, I found research that affirms what happened in my Starbucks.

In a study published in the March 8 early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers found the first laboratory evidence that cooperative behavior is contagious and that it spreads from person to person to person. The study found that people do, in fact, pay it forward after being shown kindness or generosity.

The research was conducted by James Fowler, associate professor at UC San Diego and Nicholas Christakis of Harvard, who is professor of sociology.

Fowler and Christakis study involved giving money to help others in a “public-goods game.” The study found a domino effect in which one person’s generosity spreads first to three people and then to the nine people that those three people interact with in the future, and then to still other individuals in subsequent waves of the experiment.

The effect persists, Fowler said: “You don’t go back to being your ‘old selfish self.”’ As a result, the money a person gives in the first round of the experiment is ultimately tripled by others who are subsequently (directly or indirectly) influenced to give more. “The network functions like a matching grant,” Christakis said.

The study is the first work to document experimentally Fowler and Christakis’s earlier findings that social contagion travels in networks up to three degrees of separation, and the first to corroborate evidence from others’ observational studies on the spread of cooperation.

Interestlingly, the study also found that uncooperative behavior is contagious. However, there was nothing to suggest that it spread any more or any less robustly than cooperative behavior, Fowler said.

In trying to think how this study affects negotiations and mediations, the obvious conclusion was that it pays to make the first “real” or “meaningful” move in the negotiations. Hopefully that act of generosity and “goodwill” will pay off in return directly and not just in a “pay it forward” fashion. Needless to say that any action that you take should be done genuinely and with integrity.

This research also reaffirms the concept of reciprocity that people will do good deeds for others that have previously done something for that person. In addition, just as I have indicated in my book, 112 Ways to Succeed In Any Negotiation or Mediation, it makes sense to try to pay it forward in the negotiation by taking your opponent out for lunch or coffee.

Third, it is possible in multiparty cases where one party is the target or “key” participant that your good deeds towards others in the litigation might get paid forward to the party that is the target.

Finally in a more global context, one of the most common complaints that exist in the profession of law is that people are no longer civil to each other. Indeed, many states are legislating civility amongst the profession. “Paying it Forward” is an important first and critical step towards helping the attorneys be more civil towards each other.


James H. Fowler, and Nicholas A. Christakis. Cooperative behavior cascades in human social networks. PNAS, March 8, 2010 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0913149107


Steve Mehta

Steven G. Mehta is an attorney and mediator providing unique mediation services in a variety of types of civil litigation. His ability to understand the human process and complex emotional issues involved in legal negotiations enables him to effectively assist the parties in obtaining the best possible results during mediation.… MORE >

Featured Members

View all

Read these next


Online Mediation Training – Mentoring & Consultation Best Practices

This report is prepared on behalf of the members of the Mentoring and Consultation subcommittee, all of whom are actively providing or participating in mentoring activities. The term “Mentor” been...

By Michael Lang

Rights V Resolution

From the Blog of Phyllis G. Pollack.On July 17, 2010, the Southern California Mediation Association (“SCMA”) held its annual Townhall. As president, I had the honor of choosing the topic...

By Phyllis Pollack

Political Reconciliation Made Possible via Choreographed Dialogue

I had come up with an idea: what if I get Jane to agree to have us try a process where we use facilitative mediation approaches and techniques to have...

By John Cabral