Why would you do a total stranger a favour?
A new Stanford study offers some insight, using an oddly suitable combination of evidence — pizza and Reddit.
Combing through 21,000 posts of Random Acts of Pizza, where Reddit users buy pizza for other users and thus restore faith in humanity “one slice at a time,” researcher Tim Althoff was able to find the characteristics of posts that spurred one person on the internet to buy a stranger a pizza.
- Narrative: Posts that showed that people were in a lot of need — like from a loss of job, a crisis at home, or a dip into poverty — were most likely to receive a pie.
- Reciprocity: Posts that promised to pay the kindness forward vibed well with Reddit users.
- Status: Posts made by people with high karma (a way of measuring approval on Reddit) or who had lots of posts on Random Acts of Pizza had better luck.
To arrive at these conclusions, Altoff and colleagues downloaded the entire history of Random Acts of Pizza from December 2010 to September 2013. As the MIT Tech Review reports, they then analysed attributes of the post that might predict success, leading to the best practices above.
A few patterns also emerged as characteristics to avoid:
- Politeness: Nobody on Reddit cared about how “nice” your request seemed.
- Craving: Mentions of hanging out with friends, getting drunk, or celebrating were nonstarters.
To get a clearer understanding, let’s look successful and unsuccessful posts. Note the empathetic, need-based narrative of this fulfilled request:
My gf and I have hit some hard times with her losing her job and then unemployment as well for being physically unable to perform her job due to various hand injuries as a server in a restaurant. She is currently petitioning to have unemployment reinstated due to medical reasons for being unable to perform her job, but until then things are really tight and ANYTHING would help us out right now.
I’ve been both a giver and receiver in RAOP before and would certainly return the favour again when I am able to reciprocate. It took everything we have to pay rent today and some food would go a long ways towards making our next couple of days go by much better with some food.
Contrast that with the celebratory tone of this unfulfilled request:
My friend is coming in town for the weekend and my friends and i are so excited because we haven’t seen him since junior high. we are going to a high school football game then to the dollar theatre after and it would be so nice if someone fed us before we embarked :)
There are clear communication lessons here. While we have to admit that the Random Acts of Pizza subreddit is a place where people are more likely to help each other out, the study is a tasty example of the way that a combination of credibility and emotional appeal prompt action in others.
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