Do you say “thank you” when a stranger holds the door open for you? Or when you hold the door, do people seem grateful or helpful in return?
According to scientists at the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California (USC), a recipient’s response appears to depend, at least partly, on the effort put forth by the door holder.
For example, when a door holder makes a high effort by making eye contact, smiling, and holding open the door, more recipients tend to say “thank you,” researchers found. Even further, if the door holder who made a high effort drops some pens while trying to hold open the door, the recipient is more likely to stop and help pick them up.
One finding of this study is that “small favors can have a sizable influence on our behavior, inspiring us to spend energy to help others and lending credence to the idea that we have a drive to ‘pay it forward,'” said USC neuroscience and psychology researcher Glenn Fox, Ph.D., who led the study.
For the study, published online in the journal Frontiers In Psychology, Fox said he wanted to see how a courtesy such as door-holding results in reciprocation ranging from a “thank you” to even larger acts of repayment. To test his hypothesis, USC students involved in the study opened doors for more than 300 strangers as part of two experiments.
In the first study, door holders who made a high effort — smiling and making eye contact with the strangers they were helping — were told “thank you” more often than the door holders who behaved passively as they propped open the door with low effort, checking text messages on their cell phones.
After the door-holding experiment, participants were asked to take a time-consuming survey. Of the 120 study participants, 24 thanked the door holder. Most of those were in cases where door holders made a high effort, the researchers said.
“Although the participants in the high-effort condition were not more likely to take the survey than those in the low-effort, our field notes showed they were more polite and cordial when asked about the survey,” Fox said.
For the second study, researchers wanted to know whether people will also return the favor if given the chance. Door holders in this experiment were holding a file box that had 12 pens on top that spilled out sometime after opening the door.
Who said “thank you,” and stopped and helped? Again, researchers found the response depended on the door holder’s effort. Fifty percent (97 people) of 194 participants thanked the door holders. Of these, most (more than 84 percent) were thanking a door holder who had made a high effort.
About 28 percent of the participants helped the door holders pick up their pens. Most of these helpers (64 percent) were assisting door holders who had made a high effort, versus 19 percent who assisted door holders who had made a low effort.
“This study shows that gratitude has consequences,” said Antonio Damasio, Ph.D., director of the BCI and Dornsife Neuroimaging Institute at USC, and professor of psychology and neurology at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences.
“It is not only the recipient of the act or gift who gains; it is also the doer or giver,” said Damasio, a co-researcher, author and pioneering researcher in neuroscience and emotion.
“When you are courteous to another person, or when you offer gifts, you are doing something that is good for you,” he said. “Interestingly, it can be rewarding for yourself, and it can reduce stress. It can actually be good for your health.”
The findings were two-fold: First, a small favor can inspire reciprocal acts, but at the same time, researchers discovered that most people do not feel obligated to say “thank you” or help, even when they have received a favor.
“We see for the first time that verbal thanking and reciprocal helping are not inherently correlated,” the researchers noted.
The study raises several other questions. Future studies, for example, should examine how eye contact, the type of favor, and other such factors may influence recipients’ responses.