Wayne Baker and the paying it forward paradox

April 26, 2016


Generalized reciprocity is the concept that if you help me and I feel gratitude as a result of your help, then I will pay it forward and help someone else. Wayne Baker, one of U-M’s very own professors and a CPO core faculty member, presented his research on generalized reciprocity at this year’s TEDx UofM conference on April 1, 2016.

His interest in paying it forward began when he and his family became stranded after running out of fuel while on a sailing trip. After a frantic phone call into the local radio station, a pair of strangers came to the Baker family’s rescue. Baker felt so grateful that he wanted to return the favor by helping another stranger who had radioed in asking for help.

Since that close encounter, Baker has taken a scientific approach to understanding how generalized reciprocity works and the implications of this idea. He first questioned whether individuals are motivated to pay it forward because of gratitude or rather because of the reputational incentives that might occur from helping others. Through his research he found that gratitude has a much stronger and longer lasting effect on people’s motivation to help. In fact, gratitude is a ten times stronger motivator than reputational incentives!

Once Baker determined the power of gratitude in motivating people to pay it forward, he wondered what was stopping people from paying it forward already? He found that generalized reciprocity is a paradox. Generosity is not the problem. The problem is in getting people to ask for what they want. Baker found that people oftentimes underestimate others willingness and ability to help, and as a result, they often hold back from making the request in the first place.

Yet requests are the key. We need to give freely and not be afraid to ask freely as well. In order to resolve this issue, Baker created two platforms for people to give and get requests. The first is called a reciprocity ring. A reciprocity ring is a structured process for small groups that gives participants a platform to ask for and receive help. What is the second way? Well, like everything else in today’s day and age, there is an app for that.

The mobile application is called Give and Get and I had the pleasure of being at the +LAB Huddle when Baker first introduced it to the Center, prior to the TEDx conference. After sharing his research with us, Baker asked all of us +labbers to be his first test subjects, trying out the app and providing suggestions for improvement.

Even though the application was initially designed to understand and increase employee engagement at a specific firm, the service provides an opportunity for anyone to make SMART (Specific, meaningful, action-oriented, real need and time bound) requests and could be useful to anyone with a need or desire (aka everyone). I am thankful for a forum to help others and receive help on my own requests, and am looking forward to seeing the upward spirals that will come from Baker’s research and Give and Get app!

Watch Baker’s TEDxUofM talk.

Lindsey Hirt, 2015-16 +LAB Fellow