#FeedTheDeed: An Action Teaching Project for the Psychology of Prosocial Behavior

15 Nov 2016 4:49 PM | Anonymous

Clara Michelle Cheng
Carlow University

      Before the popular Ice Bucket Challenge, there was #FeedTheDeed.

     The premise is simple: Perform a random act of kindness, share a video of it to social media, then nominate friends to continue the chain of good deeds. Since it began in 2014, #FeedTheDeed has spread to thousands of individuals across more than 25 countries (What is #FeedTheDeed, n.d.).


Action Teaching with #FeedTheDeed

     I have been implementing a variation of #FeedTheDeed in my undergraduate Social Psychology course as an action teaching project. Coined by Plous in 2000, “action teaching” is analogous to Lewin’s (1948) “action research,” which promotes scientific endeavors that both contributes to knowledge and tackles societal issues. Action teaching thus refers to a project or class activity that fosters student learning while simultaneously benefitting the community at large (Plous, 2000, 2012).

     Pedagogically, my goal of the #FeedTheDeed project is for students to personally experience the effect of prosocial behavior on happiness and to learn more about research methodology, while engaging in behaviors that promote and spread kindness to others.


Class Project Design

     Students taking Social Psychology at Carlow University are nominated to #FeedTheDeed, which entails recording themselves performing a good deed, with the twist that they are randomly assigned to perform the good deed for 1) a stranger or 2) a friend or family member. I do this purposely, to create an experimental design aimed at conceptually replicating past research that shows that prosocial behavior increases happiness (Dunn, Aknin, & Norton, 2008), particularly if said generosity is directed at those with whom we share close social ties (Aknin, Sandstrom, Dunn, & Norton, 2011). Students have the freedom to choose their good deed as long as it is not already a part of their regular routine, and that it must have a direct impact on the recipient.

     Students rate their happiness levels on a 5-point scale prior to and again following the good deed (1 = not at all, 5 = extremely). In addition, they report the amount of time it took to plan their good deed, how connected they felt towards the recipient of the good deed, and how anxious they felt while performing the good deed.

     I use the act of kindness and the questionnaire measures to give students the experience of how a generous behavior affects them emotionally. Incorporating an experimental design into the project served the goal of deepening students’ understanding of research methods.


Class Discussion

      Thus far, two cohorts of students have participated in the #FeedTheDeed class project. Examples of good deeds include paying for a stranger’s frozen yogurt, giving food to a homeless person, giving away cookies to college students, surprising mother and grandmother with thank you cards, and buying a dress for a friend who indicated that she wanted it on a recent shopping trip.

     After students have completed their good deeds, we have a class discussion during the course unit on prosocial behavior, to examine the results of the project in the context of research on the benefits of doing good. For example, combining two years’ data thus far (N = 39), students rated their happiness significantly higher after performing the good deed (M = 4.49, SD = .64) compared to before (M = 3.36, SD = .67), F(1, 37) = 71.89, p < .001. This result replicates existing research on the positive effect of prosocial behavior on mood (e.g., Dunn et al., 2008). However, contrary to past research (Aknin et al., 2011), this effect was not moderated by whether the recipient of the good deed was a stranger or a friend/family member, F(1, 37) = .97, p = .33. These results provided the basis for discussion on why the effect previously demonstrated in the literature was not fully replicated.

     Since I designed the project as an experiment, the class discussion also serves as a forum for critically evaluating the methodology of the project as a scientific study. Students came up with such critiques as that the sample was small and biased, consisting of mostly female students with similar backgrounds; demand characteristics; and a reliance on self-report data. The points made during the discussion also serve to inform the project in subsequent years. For example, a student from the first year of the project’s implementation suggested that people assigned to perform a good deed for a stranger may have experienced more anxiety than those who were in the friend/family member condition. As a result, we added anxiety as a factor in the following year to examine its influence on the results.

     The class discussion further provided an opportunity for students to reflect on prosocial behaviors in general. For example, our data yielded no significant correlation between the amount of time spent planning the good deed and increase in happiness, r(37)= -.10, p = .55. One implication of this finding is that even a simple act of kindness that doesn’t take much effort to prepare can offer benefits to a person’s mood.

     In addition, we discussed research demonstrating that people who benefitted from generosity are themselves more likely to be generous towards others and pay the good deed forward (Stanca, 2009). Thus, although we have no way of tracking this, it is possible that not only did the recipients of the students’ good deeds experience direct benefits, but this project may have indirectly inspired further good deeds and benefits beyond the class project itself.


Students’ Reactions to the Project

     Anonymous surveys conducted at the end of the semester indicated that students generally enjoyed the project (M = 5.64, SD = 1.56, N = 33, on a 7-point scale where 1 = not at all and 7 = extremely) and felt that the project helped them learn about the effects of prosocial behavior (M = 5.91, SD = 1.49, N = 33). Here is a sample of students’ comments:

  • “I liked how we got to experience first hand the feeling of giving out and spreading kindness and how it affects us as much as who we do the deed for.”
  • “I like the idea of doing a good deed for a random person because it was not something I would normally do.”
  • “I liked doing the good deed. It actually made me feel better to brighten someone’s day. I also like that I now think about, and do more prosocial behavior.”
  • “It was nerve-wrecking thinking of a good deed to perform on a stranger.”
  • “It was hard to video someone that we didn’t know and to get them to accept the deed.”
  • “It was different than any project I have ever done. Also, I liked that we got to go out in the community and do something nice for someone.”
  • “I did not have to write a long paper, but I still feel like I learned a lot.”

 The last two comments above, in particular, illustrate that there are creative ways to promote learning, and that students can reap great educational rewards from a relatively simple assignment such as this.


Incorporating #FeedTheDeed in Your Class

     Although I personally use the #FeedTheDeed project in my Social Psychology course, I believe this project is appropriate for any course that deals with the topic of prosocial behavior, such as Introduction to Psychology or Positive Psychology.

     You can adapt #FeedTheDeed to work in both small and large classes. For example, while the class discussion format I currently adopt works well in my small class of around 20, you can achieve the same purpose in large classes by having discussions in breakout groups or online, or through reflection papers.

     In addition, you can add or modify elements of the project to suit the learning objectives you have for your students. For example, part of my assignment involves students giving a presentation on this project at Carlow University’s annual Scholarship Day. Through working on this presentation, students have the opportunity to learn more about the research literature on prosocial behavior, to reflect deeply on and share their experience, to hone their presentation skills, and to showcase how their course work integrates Carlow’s core values of mercy, service, hospitality, discovery, and sacredness of creation.

     One specific suggestion for implementing this project in your class is to limit student videos to no more than 3 or so minutes, which is plenty of time to demonstrate the student’s good deed and helps limit the amount of time spent grading the videos. Students also find it helpful, prior to doing their own good deeds, to view a sample #FeedTheDeed video—easily found online—to better understand what is required of them. In addition, some students have expressed discomfort in taking videos of strangers. In one case, a student delivered flowers and food to a women’s shelter but was not permitted to take a video despite having called the facility and obtained permission to do so ahead of time. In such cases, it may be a good idea to provide an alternative option, such as a photo or a video of the student describing the good deed, rather than a video that shows them committing the good deed.

     One issue that warrants special attention is that of privacy. In the United States, it is generally legal to make video recordings in public spaces where privacy cannot reasonably be expected. However, individual states do vary on their wiretap laws with respect to audio recordings of private conversations. It is thus important to research the laws in your country or state, have safeguards in place, and ensure that students understand what they can and cannot do prior to implementing this project. In the case of private spaces (such as someone’s home), I provide my students with a consent form that those who appear in their video can sign.

     Despite a few minor concerns, there are many benefits of using #FeedTheDeed as a class project. It’s fun, it spreads kindness, and it’s also highly rewarding for the instructor. I can think of no better kind of grading than watching videos of your students brightening someone’s day, all because of you nominated them to #FeedTheDeed.

Clara Michelle Cheng is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Carlow University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She received her Hon. BSc. (2000) in Psychology from the University of Toronto and her M.A. (2002) and Ph.D. (2006) in Social Psychology from The Ohio State University, where she was the recipient of two teaching awards. She currently teaches undergraduate classes in introductory psychology, social psychology, and statistics. Her research interests are in the area of automaticity, social cognition, and mindfulness. More recently, she has delved into the scholarship of teaching and learning in a project examining the efficacy of the flipped learning format in statistics. She met her husband at the National Institute for the Teaching of Psychology conference (NITOP) 10 years ago and they have been happily married for 4 years.



 Aknin, L. B., Sandstrom, G. M., Dunn, E. W., & Norton, M. I. (2011). It’s the recipient that counts: Spending money on strong social ties leads to greater happiness than spending on weak social ties. PLOS ONE, 6, e17018. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0017019

 Dunn, E. W., Aknin, L. B., & Norton, M. I. (2008). Spending money on others promotes happiness, Science, 319, 1687-1688. doi: 10.1126/science.1150952.

 Lewin, K. (1948). Resolving social conflicts: Selected papers on group dynamics. New York, NY: Harper.

 Plous, S. (2000). Responding to overt displays of prejudice: A role-playing exercise. Teaching of Psychology, 27, 198-200.

 Plous, S. (2012). Action Teaching. In D. J. Christie (Ed.), The Encyclopedia of Peace Psychology (Vol. 1, pp. 1-5). New York: Wiley-Blackwell.

 Stanca, L. (2009). Measuring indirect reciprocity: Whose back do we scratch? Journal of Economic Psychology, 30, 190-202. doi: 10.1016/j.joep.2008.07.010

 What is #FeedtheDeed. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://kindnesscountsfoundation.com/feedthedeed/what-isfeedthedeed/

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