Image for The results of the world’s largest study on kindness are in. Here’s what we learned

The results of the world’s largest study on kindness are in. Here’s what we learned

Last year, 60,000 people volunteered to take part in a University of Sussex study on kindness. Now, the results have been presented in a special series on BBC Radio 4

Last year, 60,000 people volunteered to take part in a University of Sussex study on kindness. Now, the results have been presented in a special series on BBC Radio 4

In the late 1990s, Joey Tribbiani may have been the world’s pre-eminent thinker on kindness. Yes, that Joey Tribbiani. From the TV sitcom Friends.

“There are no unselfish good deeds,” he 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.

Thirty years on and the subject has cropped up again, this time on a BBC Radio 4 documentary series called The Anatomy of Kindness. Based on the results of the world’s biggest study on kindness, what does the research show 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.

Kindness

Claudia Hammond, author of the book The Art of Rest, is now exploring the theme of kindness. Image: Ian Skelton

“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,” she adds.

Led by Robin Banerjee, head of the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex, some 60,000 people took part in the study, and the findings have been fruitful in this lesser-explored field. “We realised that kindness as a topic has not received that much attention in terms of the academic literature,” he says.

When Banerjee went back through scientific journals from the 1980s, he found just 35 articles on the topic. Between 2010 and 2019 that number had grown to nearly 1,000.

What’s exciting about this research is that so many people took part

“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.

A lot, it turns out. Three-quarters of respondents said that their close friends or family displayed acts of kindness towards them either “quite often” or “nearly all the time”, while 43 per cent said someone had been kind to them within the last day.

The types of kindness people received were not always extraordinary acts of generosity or self-sacrifice. Sometimes it was something as simple as bringing them a cup of tea.

The jury is out as to whether the pandemic made us kinder. Brits think it has, Americans don't. Image: Remi Walle

“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 might explain why two-thirds of the test respondents said that the pandemic had made people kinder. It may have been the small things: shopping for one another, clapping for carers, checking in on lonely people, that made such a difference.

While overall the study found that people felt the levels of kindness they’d experienced in their lifetime had either remained the same (39 per cent) or decreased (36 per cent), the pandemic seemed to disrupt that pattern.

Kindness

Kindness comes in many forms, including cups of tea. Image: Rumman Amin

“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.”

Interestingly, despite 70 per cent of people in the UK feeling that Covid had made people kinder, the figure in the US was around half that, only 36 per cent. More Americans thought the pandemic had actively made people less kind.

“That to me was an eye-opener,” says Banerjee, “because that’s a huge difference.” Despite a smaller sample size in the US, a significant number of people thought this way.

If you see an opportunity to be kind, just go for it

“It made me really reflect on what kind of a world we have created,” adds Banerjee, who has also founded the Sussex Centre for Research on Kindness. “When do we come together? When don’t we come together? And what are the impacts of that?”

The team will now start to analyse the vast dataset in full, publishing their findings in a number of academic journals. But the work already seems to show, perhaps unsurprisingly, that kindness and other pro-social behaviour can help connect people in a positive way.

The study even found that kindness was seen to be valued in the workplace and in every profession. However, the number one barrier for displaying kindness (65.9 per cent), particularly in the UK, was the worry that the act would be misinterpreted.

The main barrier for people displaying kindness is the worry that it would be misinterpreted. Image: Tani Eisenstein

“This was a very dominant theme,” says Banerjee. “But our evidence is suggesting that that’s not really well-founded … we’d be much better off if we didn’t overthink the situation. If we see an opportunity to be kind and to help someone else out … just go for it.”

And perhaps that’s the most significant conclusion to be drawn from The Kindness Test: it’s easy to be drawn to the horrors of the world and consumed by images of negativity in the media and online, but actually kindness is all around us – and people need more of it.

“People experience an awful lot of kindness, and it means something,” says Banerjee. “It makes a difference to our relationships and makes a difference to our wellbeing and it brings us closer together.”

Kindness makes a difference to our relationships, our wellbeing and brings us closer together

So was Joey Tribbiani wrong? Is there such a thing as an unselfish good deed?

Yes, there is, says Hammond, who explored the idea of ‘pure kindness’ from an evolutionary, neuroscientific and psychological perspective 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 OK.”

Main image: Halfpoint/iStock

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