In 2021, 60,000 people took part in a University of Sussex study. The subject: Kindness. Now, the results have finally come back. Towards the tail end of the 1990’s, Joey Tribbiani from the TV sitcom Friends may have been the world’s pre-prominent scholar on kindness.
“There are no unselfish good deeds,” Tribbianai declared in one episode, sparking an argument with the character of Phoebe Buffay about altruism. She believed the opposite. And she spent the next 20 minutes of the episode failing to prove him wrong.
Now, thirty years down the road the subject has sprung up once more, this time on a BBC Radio 4 documentary series called the Anatomy of Kindness. Based upon the results of the world’s greatest study on kindness, what does the analysis tell us? And was Tribbiani right?
“What’s exciting about this research is that so many people took part,” says the psychologist and broadcaster Claudia Hammond, who presented the show. “And that they’re also seeing plenty of kind acts going on around them,” she adds. “But we also learned about what’s stopping people from being as kind as they might like to and maybe that’s where we need to take action”
The study was driven by Robin Banerjee, head of the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex, exactly 60,000 individuals participated in the study, and the findings have been productive in this lesser-explored field. “We realized that kindness as a topic has not received that much attention in terms of the academic literature,” he says.
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When Banerjee revisited the scientific journals from the 1980s, he discovered that there were only a mere 35 articles on the topic. Somewhere between the range of 2010 and 2019 that number had grown to nearly 1,000.
“So, we embarked on designing this Kindness Test to really shine a light on kindness, because we feel it’s likely to be all around us, but we don’t really know just how much people are experiencing it,” he adds.
The sorts of kindness individuals received were not always remarkable acts of generosity or selflessness. Sometimes it was more of a simple kind gesture such as presenting them a cup of tea.
This Sunday is #InternationalDayofHappiness and reminds us to take action to be happier and kinder, together 💕
— Sussex Centre for Research on Kindness (@KindnessSussex) March 18, 2022
Turns out, up to three quarters of respondents said that their family or closest friends displayed these types of kind gestures towards them “quite often” or “on a regular basis”, while 43% said someone had been kind to them within the last day.
“What you might call ‘common courtesy’, what you might call ‘being polite’, if it’s motivated by a care for another’s welfare – even if it’s a tiny thing, like holding the door for someone, or smiling at someone – that is kindness,” says Banerjee. “Those little moments add up.”
That could explain why 66% of the test respondents said that the pandemic made people kinder. It might have been the small things: shopping for one another, checking in on lonely people, clapping for caregivers, and the like that made such a difference.
While generally speaking, the study discovered that people felt the levels of kindness they’d encountered in their lifetime had either been the same as always (39%) or decreased from there (36%), the pandemic seemed to disrupt that pattern.
“It was very striking,” says Banerjee. “It really made me think about the social context of all of this. We all have a role to play in kindness. This isn’t just about individuals doing their thing, it’s also about us coming together as a collective.”
The group will begin to examine the immense dataset in full, publishing their discoveries in a number of academic journals. However, the work even as of now appears to show, perhaps obviously, that kindness and other pro-social behavior can assist people in connecting in a positive way.
Perhaps that is the main end to be drawn from the Kindness Test: it’s easy to be attracted to the horrors of the world and consumed by images of darkness or negativity in the media and on the web, however kindness and light are all around us – and people need more of it.
So, was Joey Tribbiani wrong? Is there such a thing as an unselfish decent deed?
“Yes, there is”, says Hammond, who investigated the idea of ‘pure kindness’ from a transformative, neuroscientific and mental viewpoint on the show.
“But more often we’re motivated by a combination of factors, and good deeds bring benefits to us as well as to the person we’re helping,” she adds. “If that motivates us to be kind more often, then in my view that’s okay.”