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Pay it forward

  • 7th Aug, 2006 at 11:18 PM

I met wlach today for a spot of coffee. He was in the neighbourhood and rang me up. How could I refuse?

As we were chatting, the topic of reciprocity came up. You know, where I do you a favour and then you return it some day? Paying someone back for a good turn (or a bad one) is something that's rather ingrained in our culture. And it's fairly reliable, if you can account for each transaction. Tit-for-tat is one of the most successful exchange strategies out there. Just ask bramcohen.

But it doesn't fully capitalize on the network effect. You can only tap into the network of people for who owe you a favour. But those people might not be poised to help you. Instead, I advocate another model.

On Saturday, I found a camera case sitting on a bench along St-Denis. Inside was a digital camera and a wallet. Using my well-developed deductive skills, I ascertained the identity of the owner, whom I shall call X. Using my well-developed "stalking" skills, I got in contact with X who came by and picked up the bag. X was very, very thankful. In return, I asked that X offer random, spontaneous help to people who seemed deserving.

With any luck, my deed will pop into mind the next time X wants to brush off someone or walk past something. After all, everybody is really busy. When I first came across this concept, I had no idea that it had a name. But some people have called it paying it forward. Which is a rather apt name. Ironically, this concept only became popular after a large, multinational conglomerate made a film about it.

I figure that since the world of people that I know is very small, and that I'm well connected with others, it's only a matter of time before my little quantum of niceness gets back to me. If I keep on pumping niceness into the system, and others do the same, my small efforts will multiply. After all, the amount of good I can do is limited to how much time I have and the people I know. But my network of friends is much, much larger.

The only problem is that of leeches. People who only take and don't give to the system. That's where being judgemental comes in. When you notice that some folks never seem to help their friends, or to help you, then you have to fall back to tit-for-tat. And spread the news that this person is a leech, so that your friends do the same. This quickly shuts down the drain on your collective kindness, while still allowing you to be a decent human being.

Of course, I paid for wlach's coffee. He's a good friend, after all.


( 17 comments — Leave a comment )
8th Aug, 2006 04:28 (UTC)
Some articles I read in Nature a few years back suggested an even better strategy: play tit-for-tat, but only after checking for and exploiting suckers who are always nice regardless of what you do. In their models this was actually necessary for a stable system. Other experiments have said that in a noisy system where two players don't always communicate perfectly (rather like in life) it's important to not just play tit-for-tat but to be nice sometimes even when someone doesn't seem to deserve it.

Anyways, I find this stuff fascinating.
8th Aug, 2006 14:00 (UTC)
Yeah. Much of this is explored by game theory. Basically, what I'm arguing is that you should look past the standard two-person model and try to bias an n-person model such that the group benefits are maximized.
8th Aug, 2006 05:20 (UTC)
I have reason to believe the name may have its roots in the science fiction community, actually. I have a friend, James Stevens-Arce, who had a number of short stories published in the 70s and 80s, and finally sold his first novel a couple of years ago. Back when Jim was starting out, he got a lot of useful advice from other writers he met, and asked one of them what he could do to pay back the favour. "Don't pay it back," was the response. "Pay it forward."

Jim told me this story a couple of years ago at a WorldCon after I thanked him for introducing me to an editor. He also said the putative coiner of the phrase is Robert Heinlein.
8th Aug, 2006 13:56 (UTC)
Huh. That ethic would make a lot of sense, coming from that community. But I'd be a bit skeptical about the RAH reference. That smells of urban legend.
8th Aug, 2006 05:23 (UTC)
It's funny, because part of my psych textbook that I should be reading for Thursday mentions how the world actually works quite a bit like that already, for much the same reasons you state (if you default to being nice to any member of your own species, rather than just people you know personally/family, then things work out better).
8th Aug, 2006 13:58 (UTC)
What I'm advocating isn't that you should be nice to people. I think lots of people do that by default. What I'm advocating is the active propogation of niceness, which is not a normal property.

What you basically want to foster is an environment where people don't exploit anyone else, because that's only beneficial locally.
8th Aug, 2006 06:38 (UTC)

I know we've barely done anything together, but even from the short bit that we have it's been made quite evident to me that you are a very generous fellow!

Yay for you! :)
8th Aug, 2006 13:59 (UTC)
I don't think that I'm particularly generous. I'm merely idealistic. :)
(Deleted comment)
8th Aug, 2006 13:59 (UTC)
8th Aug, 2006 12:23 (UTC)
You rock my noodles man. (and I'm not even sure what my noodles ARE) :D
8th Aug, 2006 13:59 (UTC)
We shall have to find out!
(Deleted comment)
8th Aug, 2006 14:35 (UTC)
You sure fooled me...
8th Aug, 2006 14:48 (UTC)
Isn't the correct term for this Altruism? Though I mean it in the Richard Dawkins' sense, not in the Wikipedia sense :P

Oh, and bittorrent very early on removed the careful balanced "tit for tat" code, since it was slowing down bittorrent more then it was useful in only giving to those who give you.
8th Aug, 2006 14:53 (UTC)
Re: uhm
It's a method for propogating altruism. It's very nice to be altruistic oneself, but to spread this meme is far more important.

Still, BitTorrent uses some modified version, doesn't it? I see my client back off if the other side does as well.
9th Aug, 2006 21:26 (UTC)
Re: uhm
From: http://www.zdnet.com.au/news/software/0,2000061733,39198116,00.htm

The paper quotes "the tit-for-tat approach used in the BitTorrent network" as an inspiration for parts of Avalanche's own operation. Under the approach, a peer-to-peer client will not upload any content to another client unless it has also received a certain amount of content in return.

Cohen said, however, this was a waste of time and had been discarded long ago.

"I can't fathom how they came up with this," he wrote. "Researching either the source code or the documentation on the BitTorrent Web site would have shown that the real choking algorithms work nothing like this."

"Either they just heard 'tit-for-tat' and just made this up, or they for some odd reason dredged up BitTorrent 1.0 and read the source of that." BitTorrent is currently at version 4.0.2.

Cohen went on to say that the 'tit-for-tat' approach was used when BitTorrent was still being developed, but that the first real-world test with only six connected machines showed that it did not work well.

I know there is some relation between up and download speeds, but it is not one to one.
15th Aug, 2006 18:51 (UTC)
Re: uhm
It's amazing how the 'tit-for-tat' myth w.r.t. BitTorrent is so strong though. Urban myths take on new vigour in the Information Age.
11th Jan, 2008 02:17 (UTC)
Two years later...

I was always a fan of the "pay it foward" movement. I'm kinda poor, so I don't always do it with money. But I do it with words and deeds. Cos I'm building up my case "up there" (I'm not religious, but... should I be wrong, I want my case to be provable none the less.)

I was "paid foward" today by many people in my life. I thought I was ruined and was beyond despair. I had an "It's A Wonderful Life" kinda day. People rallied to help me, financially and, those that didn't give money, saved me by making me laugh out of the depression that I thought would hurt me.

I can't wait to Pay This Foward!

Thought I'd share,

( 17 comments — Leave a comment )