Dec. 21, 2011 -- After 25 years of working in the retail industry, George Bianchi, store manager of Kmart in Brockton, Mass., says he's never seen a more giving gesture than the nationwide Christmas phenomenon he's experienced firsthand.
Over the past couple of weeks, three people stopped by his store and asked to pay off the layaways of complete strangers.
"I saw this exact thing on the news, so when someone walked in, I knew right away what they wanted to do," said Bianchi. "I think it's absolutely wonderful."
This altruistic phenomenon, which first started in Michigan, has been sweeping the nation. More than 1,000 layaway accounts adding up to more than $400,000 have been settled by layaway angels, according to Shannell Armstrong, public relations director for Sears Holdings Corporation, the company that owns Kmart. Kmart says these angels are completely consumer generated and not part of a company program.
Brockton, a working-class town, is one among many southern Massachusetts towns hardest hit by the recession. On three separate occasions, the store received visits by so-called "layaway angels," anonymous donors on a mission to ease the financial burden of the holidays.
Layaway accounts are set up to give shoppers the chance to slowly pay down the price of a gift. But for one woman who was touched by a layaway angel, all that was left on her payoff balance was 10 cents.
"She didn't have words to explain how happy she was," Bianchi said.
In most cases, including the Brockton Kmart, the donors were asked not to be identified.
"They just want to be left alone and never found out," said Bianchi.
Scientific research suggests some people are more likely to act in ways that put the welfare of strangers ahead of their own.
The motivation behind the Good Samaritan can best be described by scientific theories that seem to work together, according to Scott Huettel, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, who leads a lab that has conducted research on altruism.
The "warm glow theory" suggests that acting in ways that benefit others can naturally generate a feeling of internal reward.
"That act of giving modulates the brain system in the same way that receiving does," said Huettel. "The brain regions that we're sure deal with motivation showed increase in activation when people are giving."
Research suggests that for some, the act of giving generates motivation chemicals in the brain called dopamine. The dopamine neurons turn on other parts of the brain and help generate feelings that make people want to do the same act of giving again.
Altruism also reflects some social connection with another person, Huettel said. The connection to give is stronger when it involves helping one specific person rather than a larger group, where the service might get lost.
"In layaway, they're going in, finding and helping specific people, rather than just giving an amount that could help anyone," said Huettel. "Having an identifiable person to help turns to be a greater motivator rather than thinking about the general greater good."
The woman who was helped by a so-called layaway angel told Bianchi that she would not have been able to pay off the items she needed had it not been for the donor.
"It really hits your heart when you see that," said Bianchi. "In all my time in retail, I've never seen anything like it."
The items for the three layaway customers totaled about $1,000. The items were basic necessities like pajamas, children's toys and baby items, Bianchi said.
Many people disengage from charity acts when the social problem seems too big to handle, said Huettel.
"When there's just one situation and one person to help, there are more tangible consequences to the giving," he said.
For years, researchers looked at the theories of reward and personalized charity independently, but now labs are looking at how the two theories work together. But, Heuttel said, there's no science to explaining why some choose to help complete strangers over people they already know.
"It's not explainable in direct order," said Huettel. "At the end of the day you don't get anything out of it but feeling good by helping others."
But perhaps for some, including the "layaway angels," the act of service generates a tangible feeling that can't be replaced.
"I think people really want to help each other this year," said Bianchi. "And we feel absolutely wonderful about it."