Designed to be kind: why we are more social than selfish


At first glance, in the media headlines and on the front pages, the world seems a cruel, ruthless and combative place. We regularly hear about all kinds of human violence, deception and selfishness. Yet, noting the endless ways in which we could all harm and be harmed by others – our vast potential for maliciousness on the one hand and our deep vulnerability on the other – forces the conclusion that the amount of real harm that the Most humans do to others is surprisingly small.

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Additionally, if you’ve traveled in your life, you’ve probably noticed that kindness, not cruelty, is the coin of the kingdom everywhere. Stranded in a foreign city, you’re much more likely to receive help than to be hurt by those around you, people who don’t know you and don’t owe you anything.

Our capacity for empathy goes beyond anything evident in the animal kingdom. We feel the pain of other humans, but also of other species. We even feel the pain of non-cash: we cry when ET can’t phone home.

As a rule, human beings are extremely prosocial. This trend emerges early: “Infants as young as 14-18 months help others achieve their goals, such as helping them find things out of reach or opening cupboards for them. They do this regardless of any rewards from adults. . and most likely regardless of things like reciprocity and reputation. ”

We seem to be biologically predisposed to kindness. Yet, as our cognitive abilities and our social world become more complex during the developmental process, our behavior, kind or otherwise, becomes increasingly conditioned by internal and environmental circumstances. For example, over time, we begin to consider the intentions of others when we judge their (and ours) actions. Research has shown that people may be more likely to return kindness when they can rule out a strategic motive.

Kindness is universally valued virtue. When parents are asked what they want for their children, “being nice” is consistently among the top-ranked responses. Kindness is also one of the highest rated traits we desire. in a companion. Over the past 50 years, evidence has accumulated on the myriad advantages of benevolence in a variety of areas of health outcomes. Kindness seems facilitate positive change in the mood and the sense of well-being whatever the target of cuteness; it helps to reduce anxiety and maintain well-being in times of stress. Only reminder Where witness acts of kindness can increase well-being. Various “kindness interventions” were shown experimentally effective in improving mood and well-being (although these effects tend to be modest and partly because of the general excitement produced by the novelty kind behavior).

What motivates our good behavior? Early theories, based on Darwin’s evolutionary ideas, sought to portray kindness as selfish in nature: we help others when (and because) it improves our own chances of survival and reproduction. Sadly, the phenomenon of self-denial in humans and other species (such as ants) has posed a problem for the theory of evolution: how does self-sacrifice promote survival?

With modern genetics came a proposed solution: the theory of “parent selection”(Inclusive fitness) explains how an act of self-sacrifice can help one’s genetic parents. The theory of “mutual altruism“, whereby helping others improves the chances that they will help us, explains the kindness towards strangers.

Leading with kindness can also help us distinguish potential allies (who reciprocate) from enemies (who don’t). An act of kindness can increase our esteem in the eyes of our peers and help us avoid social rejection. Helping others can also serve as a signal to potential partners that we have ample resources to spare. Doing something kind can help us (selfishly) reduce the inner tension we feel when our experience of empathy collides with our inaction.

However, a more recent line of thought argues that kindness is motivated by a social impulse to help others who are in difficulty. Multiple experiments since the 1980s have tested this notion. For example, if doing something nice simply reduces the tension created by our experience of empathy and inaction, then individuals are likely to choose the simplest tension reduction option available. Yet when the researchers varied the ease of escape from an empathic situation, participants always chose to help, even when the escape from the situation was easy (for example, no one would know that they decided not to. to help). This result suggests that participants were motivated to help others, not to alleviate their own distress.

Phone experiences, testing the perspective of “selfless goodness” (we are kind to help another overcome adversity) against that of “selfish kindness” (we are kind to help ourselves obtaining social favors, avoiding guilt, reducing tensions), tend to support the former.

Upon reflection, it seems plausible that both types of motives are at play. Selflessness is a fundamental predisposition, but the self-structure, built over time on this basis, is sensitive to spontaneous and strategic considerations of personal interest. Some seemingly kind behaviors are motivated by self-concern. Some of these behaviors are motivated by concern for the well-being of others.

Kindness is often seen as a positive individual quality or a basic personality trait, but it manifests itself in a meaningful way only in a relational context. Therefore, kindness is probably best viewed as serving neither “self” or “others” alone. On the contrary, it mainly fulfills a more fundamental function on which all human survival and development depend: the love relationship. As such, it constitutes a basic positive relational process, as cooperative and sympathetic relational environments (families, neighborhoods, cultures) tend to facilitate better individual life outcomes.

Indeed, even if we are wired for the social interest, this tendency – like the great psychologist Alfred Adler intuitive – is fragile and must be actively nurtured and protected in order to fully manifest. Cultural forces can overwhelm biological dispositions. Namely: we are wired for movement, but modern cultural conditions make us sedentary. Likewise, ruthless, suspicious and selfish cultural norms can actually overwhelm the kindness process.

In this context, the notion of “random acts of kindness”, although frequently performed, is problematic. As with violence – for which randomness is essential even if the systemic processes are more consequent – the same goes for kindness. The greatest social impact does not come from random behavior but from intentional action and systemic habits. Giving money to random people is less useful than giving money to people who need it. Indeed, research suggests that people are more likely to derive joy from helping others when they 1) feel free to choose whether and how to help; 2) feel connected to the people they are helping; and 3) can see how their help is making a difference.

Oxford University psychologist Lee Rowland offers the following summary: “The beauty of kindness is that it is open to everyone. We can all choose to choose cuteness if we want to. It is free, easily accessible to rich and poor alike, and is universally understood. So, if it turns out that simple everyday acts of kindness can have welfare ripple effects in society, then promoting and facilitating this must be a constructive pursuit.


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