Random acts of pasta: Why do acts of kindness go viral?

A Utah man became a social media sensation after he used an Olive Garden pass to feed the homeless. Americans like passing on feel-good stories about people doing good almost as much as they like spreading cute-pet videos or the latest on Kim Kardashian.

Darden Restaurants/AP
Matt Tribe, a resident of Ogden, Utah, used a never-ending pasta pass from the Olive Garden to give away 125 meals, many to homeless people. He dubbed his project "random acts of pasta."

It's "Giving Tuesday" – an annual day when nonprofits reach out and many Americans think of how to give back to their communities – but one of the stories getting the most attention this Tuesday is a man who's been handing out food to the homeless for much longer than a day.

Matt Tribe, an Ogden, Utah, resident, used the Olive Garden's Never Ending Pasta Pass, which gave him unlimited pasta for $100, to give away some 125 meals, many of them to homeless people. He dubbed his project "random acts of pasta."

Other recipients of the limited-edition Olive Garden pass gained fame for eating only at the Italian chain for the duration of the offer, but Mr. Tribe seems to be the only person who actively used it for others (taking advantage of a loophole that allowed takeout to be included in the pass).

But he's only the latest of numerous such acts of kindness to go viral. And while it's unclear whether reading about such stories inspires people to go out and replicate the actions – or find other ways to "pay it forward" – it's certainly clear that Americans like passing on feel-good stories about people doing good almost as much as they like spreading cute-pet videos or the latest on Kim Kardashian.

In most cases, the stories that seem to catch aren't the biggest or most effective acts of charity, but ones that are unusual, have a gimmick, and – most importantly – are captured by video, photo, or a blog.

Some, like the "pay it forward" coffee trend in which Starbucks customers would purchase the order of the person behind them (and which several economists have pointed out isn't truly giving anything away) are part of a loosely orchestrated campaign. But many others seem to be random acts that happen to be caught on video – often without the knowledge of the person doing the giving – and capture the attention of numerous Twitter and Facebook users.

There's the South Dakota woman who paid for the three boxes of diapers that a mother ahead of her in line couldn't afford. And the Texas firefighters who responded to a call in which a man collapsed of a heart attack while mowing his yard – and then, after getting him to the hospital, returned to the home to finish mowing his lawn.

The things that get noticed – and passed on – can be as simple as tying the shoes of a stranger or talking to a 3-year-old autistic girl sitting in the neighboring seat on an airplane, or as generous as the anonymous Holiday Inn patron who left his bartender a $1,000 tip after hearing about the major surgery that her dog needed.

It's the randomness that seems to catch most readers' attention, and perhaps make them hopeful that more people would display such kindness to strangers. And it's possible, of course, that the stories inspire similar behavior, though cynics might say that they enable people to feel good about the world without having to go to the trouble of acting themselves.

In Tribe's case, he was the one who documented his project, listing all 125 meals he provided (and also acknowledging that he used the pass for himself 14 other times), including stories to go with some of them, and calling it one of the most "fun and fulfilling things" he's done. "What if everyone spent a couple days a month just doing something nice for someone else?" he asks on his site.

Tribe has already faced a backlash on Reddit, with users wondering if his project was really just part of an Olive Garden marketing ploy, though both Tribe and the Olive Garden have said that's not true, and Tribe has tweeted that the cynical speculation "breaks my heart."

Tribe does list several "interesting things" he learned from the seven-week project: "1. Nobody is ever home when you randomly stop by. Some people I tried 6 times and they were never there. 2. Not one person was pissed that I brought them free Olive Garden. 3. Homeless people vanish at night 4. Always check soup lids to make sure they're on tight or your back seat will hate life."

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