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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?


  • [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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