Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Random Acts of Gratuitous Kindness

On occasion I have critiqued the advice columns that appear in New York Magazine. I am grateful to the magazine for offering an unadulterated vision of what therapists are really doing. Better them than me.

Yet, the magazine also offers a section called “Science of Us” where it reports on the latest findings from the world of social psychology. I have often linked to these columns. I find them enlightening and useful, a worthy counterpoint to the drivel that passes as advanced therapeutic wisdom.

Now, Cari Romm reports on a new study that affirms the results of a prior study performed by Jennifer Trew and Lynn Alden. Links here and here. All of them measure the impact of what are called prosocial actions in your everyday life. In the new study Alex Fradera examined what happened when people responded to the boorish behavior of co-workers with acts of kindness.

In another context, it’s called the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have others do unto you… which means do not return an insult with an insult, do not return obnoxious behavior with obnoxious behavior or even with calls to shut it the hell down. If you want people to behave better toward you do not police their bad behavior. Act better toward them. Who knew?

Now social psychology has demonstrated the point. Romm presents the argument:

Maybe you have a co-worker who constantly chews really loudly, or a cubicle neighbor with a B.O. situation, or one who insists on making overly personal phone calls from their desk. For the love of god, Bill, it’s not that hard to step into the hallway….

It’s fair if putting on your headphones and Gchatting snarky commentary to a friend can sometimes feel like the only way to make it through the day. But according to a study recently published in the journal Emotion and highlighted by Alex Fradera at BPS Research Digest, being nice to your co-workers — not just tolerating them, but actively working to make their day more pleasant — can make things better for you, too.

To be more specific, Romm offers an example:

Next time Bill’s complaining loudly on the phone about his hangover, then, maybe bring him a cup of coffee. Even if he doesn’t deserve it, the rest of the office might.

And, prosocial behaviors are contagious. When someone acts kindly toward you, you are more likely to do a good deed toward someone else:

The acts of kindness don’t go unnoticed. The receivers observed more prosocial behaviors in the office and by the end of the study, they were reporting ten times more prosocial behaviors than the controls. In addition, receivers’ level of “felt autonomy” – essentially how much they felt in control of their days at work – were higher than controls over the course of the study… One month after the study ended, the receivers were also enjoying significantly higher levels of happiness than controls.

And also:

Just as important, these gestures seemed to create something of a snowball effect: The workers on the receiving end then turned around and did something nice for another one of their colleagues, going out of their way to show goodwill three times as often as employees in the control group, who hadn’t been the beneficiary of any planned acts of kindness.


Shaun F said...

I'm sorry Stuart, I can't agree. I've been kind and people would always take advantage of my kindness. Give em an inch they take a mile. That doesn't mean I've stopped being kind - it just means I'm very particular where and with whom I invest it now.

Shaun F said...

I would like to state that one has to differentiate between kindness and enabling. I don't think many people can discern the difference.

Ares Olympus said...

I recall a video about chains of "random acts of kindness" propagate from person to person. Here it is, from 6 years ago, starting with a skateboarder who falls down, and is helped, and then he helps an old woman with groceries cross the street, etc.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nwAYpLVyeFU Life Vest Inside - Kindness Boomerang - "One Day"

The lesson I took from the video is in part about "attention", since you have to pay attention to your surroundings in order to see where you could offer someone help, while as often in public we're all in our little mental worlds, planning the next activity in our busy day, or even worse, on the phone talking to someone more important that the strangers around us, or even just staring at a smart phone screen at every spare moment.

I might be tempted to agree with Shaun. I don't know about taking advantage of kindness, since that's sort of the point, but there's certainly no guarantee that self-absorbed receivers will ever see their unearned gifts from others, and think of their own to give back to the world, but maybe like any chain reaction, some actions will be duds, while others may propagate a millionfold, and you don't know which is which. And while Scrooges will always seem the most unlikely benefactors, people who are not even grateful for help now, they may someday change, and it might take thousands of such events to as Dostoevsky say "draw men's souls out of their solitude".

But in defense of Shaun, what he's expressing it seems to me is the "zero sum game" where your gain is my loss, and it is true we all lose time when we give it to others, and we can all feel resentment when someone takes too much of our time, and project that they are unworthy of it. And "enabling" can be a part of it as well.

Like I have an autistic friend who wanted rides to some weekly evening meetings, and knew he's on transit lines and he does use it, but I think he feels isolated on the bus/LRT because he looks different, and people don't like him, so when people give him car rides, he feels "cared for." But I don't live driving anyway, so I offered to bicycle to his house, and ride the bus/LRT with him a few times until he felt comfortable for the new route. He did turn me down, with some excuses, so I couldn't tell which ones were real. I expect eventually he found someone else to give him rides.

Anyway, for me, I could see I value autonomy very highly, so I'd never set myself up in a situation where I was dependent upon rides, where someone else is going out of their way for me. But I do benefit by knowing there are people who would help me in an emergency situation. And I've thought about the idea of what we "owe" others, and that when someone helps us, we don't necessarily "owe" our benefactor, but we may also repay it to someone else in need, whether because our adult conscience demands some payback, or because we just find ourselves in a place of surplus with something to give back.

So it opens us to pay attention to what we have to give. And yes, we still have to ask what we're enabling in our help, and we should use our best thought to what will help the most, like the teach a man to fish parable suggests.