Imagine you walk into the Cartoon Museum and find that you don't need to pay for admission, though you can donate if you choose. Would it make a difference if you were asked to "Pay what you want" or to "Pay it forward for?" Yup. People pay more if asked to pay it forward. And yes, this really was done at the Cartoon Museum, which allowed Berkeley's Lief Nelson and his colleagues to do exactly that experiment. Nelson is trying to understand why. His lab has run a series of studies in which participants are given money for showing up at the study. Then they're given a "Cal" mug, for which they can make a donation, if they want. After ruling out a few possibilities for why "pay it forward" works, Nelson and his colleagues asked how much participants thought others would pay for the mug. Somewhere north of $2, said the participants, who themselves offered around $1.50. In a subsequent trial, those in the "pay it forward" condition were told the person who had paid for their mug had paid $1.50. Knowing that wiped out the advantage of the "pay it forward" instruction, who paid around $1.15, same as the "pay what you want" folks. Apparently part of the reason that "pay it forward" works is that people sometimes overestimate what those who paid for them had done.
I wonder, then, about the impact of societal narratives in which people are portrayed as generous versus Randian- type narratives in which people are told that they should simply act in their narrow self interest. What are the consequences for generosity, and how important is generosity for such things as development of thriving communities?