The Scientific Case for Random Acts of Kindness


In August, 57-year-old Erin Alexander sat in the parking lot of a department store in California and cried. Her sister-in-law had recently passed away and Mrs. Alexander was having a hard day.

A barista working in the store was too. The espresso machine had broken down and she was clearly upset. Ms Alexander – who had stopped crying and walked inside – smiled, ordered an iced green tea and gave the barista words of encouragement. After she drank her tea, she noticed a message on the cup: “Erin,” the barista had written next to a heart, “your soul is gold.”

“I’m not even sure what ‘your soul is gold’ means,” said Ms Alexander, who laughed and cried as she recalled the incident.

But the warmth of this unexpected little gesture, from a stranger who had no idea what she was going through, moved her deeply. “Of course I was still very sad,” Ms Alexander said. “But this little thing made the rest of my day.”

New findings, published recently in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, corroborate just how powerful such experiments can be. Researchers have found that people who perform a random act of kindness tend to underestimate how much the recipient will appreciate it. And researchers believe that a miscalculation could prevent us from doing nice things for others more often.

“We have this negativity bias when it comes to social connections,” said Marisa Franco, a psychologist, who did not work on the study. “We just don’t think the positive impact of our behaviors is as positive as it is.”

Ms Franco said she hoped the study would inspire more people to be kind to others.

The study included eight small experiments that varied in design and participants. In one, for example, graduate students were asked to perform thoughtful acts of their choosing, such as driving a classmate home from campus or buying someone a cup of coffee.

In all of the experiments, people who did these kinds of kind things consistently underestimated how much they were actually appreciated, said one of the study’s authors, Amit Kumar, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas. in Austin.

“People tend to think what they give is little, maybe it’s relatively inconsequential,” Dr Kumar said. “But recipients are less likely to think that way. They consider the gesture to be much more meaningful because they also think about the fact that someone did something nice for them.

The idea that kindness can improve well-being is not new. Studies have shown that prosocial behavior – willingly helping others – can help reduce people’s daily stress levels, and that simple acts of connection, like texting a friend, mean more than many of us. we don’t think so.

But researchers who study kindness say they hope the new findings strengthen the scientific case for doing these types of gestures more often.

“I found that kindness can be a really hard sell,” said clinical psychologist Tara Cousineau. “People desire kindness but often feel embarrassed by the idea of ​​being nice.” But, she added, kindness is unlikely to backfire.

Jennifer Oldham, 36, who recently lost her 9-year-old daughter Hallie, started a Facebook group – Keeping Kindness for Hallie – which encourages random kindness.

“No small act goes unnoticed,” Ms Oldham said. “It will help your own heart, perhaps even more than the recipient’s.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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