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Monday
Mar212011

How contagious is courtesy? An informal experiment

Steward at Council even hold doors open for Commissioners

Like most clichés, "courtesy is contagious" had no real meaning for me until I experienced it. In this case, as I was driving I let someone enter a line in front of me, and noticed that next person behind me did the same. This made me wonder how contagious courtesy really is, so I decided to experiment with it a little.

First, I tried the opposite driving behavior - the more common zero-sum "someone else can let you in" approach where I did not let people into line. After trying this a handful of times and comparing it to the courteous case, I noticed that roughly twice as many cars passed before letting the waiting person in (the best I could judge from my rear-view mirror.) In other words, if I let someone in, then the person behind me one or two back would let in the next person in line. If I was not courteous in this way, however, it looked like ~3-4 cars back let them in. This is a poorly-controlled test, but not only did it seem to help, it made me feel better. Result: A keeper!

I've noticed a similar "follow the leader" behavior from the bicyclist perspective. Where I live in New England, we have narrow roads in the country, which makes biking both beautiful and dangerous [1]. What I observed is that when a driver gives my wide berth (actually crossing the dividing line - thank you!) then following drivers do the same. The opposite is generally true too: If someone whizzes by one foot away at 45 MPH, so do the drivers behind him. I still haven't figured out experiments to try from the bike to change this behavior. Angry waving doesn't communicate.

Another little example I noticed is while waiting in line at the library, I heard the elderly man in line before me tell the check-out person, "I appreciate all your hard work in the library." Being reminded of civilized behavior encouraged me to do the same, like scooching my chair back against the table I was working at for the next person.

Here's an experiment idea: For a week, actively look for examples of (un)common courtesy. Or better yet, pick a small courteous activity you can try out, do it fora a week, and stick around to see if anyone repeats. Not conclusive, but a bit of evidence, and plus it feels good. Who knows, you might start a trend!

I'm curious

  • Have you seen something like this in action?
  • Are you naturally courteous?
  • If you experiment with this, what were your results?

References

  • [1] A two-by-two, anyone? Beauty vs. danger (help me here):
    0,0: Ugly duckling
    0,1: The Stone Fish
    1,0: Disney princess
    1,1: Femme fatale

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