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New Study Explores the Nature of Altruism Using Random Acts of Pizza

Protip: be poor and sad.


Want a pizza but don’t feel like doing that thing where you pay for it? You can always ask the Internet to send you one. If you’re on the right part of Reddit, they actually might, which has some Stanford University researchers curious about why.

The Random Acts of Pizza subreddit is meant to “restore faith in humanity” by allowing strangers to send one another pizza over the Internet. In an effort to understand the nature of altruism and selfishness, a bunch of Stanford University researchers looked at the 21,000 threads+ that have been collected on the subreddit since its inception in December 2010 and charted which of these pizza queries were actually successful.

They tested specifically for politeness, evidentiality (if somebody said that they were just hit by a car, for example, they’d provide a picture of their cast; similarly, if someone is gifted a pizza, they post photographic evidence of that pizza in a separate post thanking the pizza-giver), reciprocity of the poster, sentiment, and length of message.

About 70% of the time, the most successful responses were those made by people who had a very strong sentimental need, a high status within the community—specifically, those with more karma points or those who had given pizzas in the past and were familiar to the Random Acts of Pizza community—and said they would pay the favor back at a later date. Politeness, contrary to common belief, had nothing to do with the rate of pizza giving at all.

In addition, the researchers also divided the messages into categories: “money,” “job,” “student,” “family,” and “craving.” Not surprisingly, those who cited keywords related to “craving”—which usually involved some mention of a significant other, a party, or being drunk—were less likely to get a pizza, whereas those who cited unemployment, children, paychecks, or other similar terms were more likely to get one. 

Redditors of a higher status were also much more likely gifted with pizza, as the above graph shows. 


Some real life examples: redditors who have recently received pizza used post titles like, “Just got over food poisoning from expired food bank food,” or “Lost my job and and I’ve got a negative bank balance.”  Despite this, the community at large does not necessarily see themselves as a charity—though they do make a point to ban people they think might be scamming others out of pizza with fictitious sob stories.

The Stanford team of researchers hopes that the model they’ve developed can be extrapolated outward into other psychological studies on helping behavior and social media systems.

(via Lifehacker, image via British Mum)

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