The Unexpected Power of Random Acts of Kindness

CALIFORNIA — In late August, Ms. Erin Alexander, 57, sat in the parking lot of a Target store in Fairfield, California, and cried. Her sister-in-law had recently passed away and Mrs. Alexander was having a hard day.

A barista working at the Starbucks inside the Target was too. The espresso machine had broken down and she was clearly stressed. Ms Alexander – who had stopped crying and gone inside to get some caffeine – smiled, ordered an iced green tea and told him to hang on.

After picking up her order, she noticed a message on the cup: “Erin,” the barista had scribbled 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 in the Journal of Experimental Psychology in August, corroborate just how powerful experiments like Ms Alexander’s 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 they believe that a miscalculation could prevent many of us from doing great things for others more often.

“We have this negativity bias when it comes to social connection. We just don’t think the positive impact of our behaviors is as positive as it is,” said Dr. Marisa Franco, psychologist and author of “Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make – and Keep – Friends”, which has not worked on recent searches.

“With a study like this, I hope it inspires more people to do random acts of kindness,” she said.

Underestimating the power of small gestures

The recent 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 own choosing, such as driving a classmate home from campus, baking cookies, or buying someone a cup of coffee. ‘a.

In another, researchers recruited 84 participants over two cold weekends at the Maggie Daley Park ice rink in Chicago. They were given a hot chocolate from the snack stand and told they could keep it or give it to a stranger as a deliberate act of kindness.

The 75 participants who offered their hot chocolate were asked to guess how the act of kindness would feel to the recipient on a scale of zero (very small) to 10 (very large), and to predict how the recipient would rate their mood (ranging from much more negative than normal to much more positive than normal) after receiving the drink. Recipients were then asked to rate how they actually felt using the same scales.

In this experiment – and all others – people who did this kind stuff consistently underestimated how much they were actually appreciated, said one of the study’s authors, Dr. Amit Kumar, assistant professor. in marketing and psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.

“We believe that these miscalibrated expectations matter for behavior,” he said. “Not knowing about its positive impact can prevent people from engaging in these kinds of acts of kindness in daily life.”

Another experiment in the study was designed to help researchers better understand this tendency to underestimate the power of our own kind acts. In it, Dr. Kumar and his team recruited 200 participants from Maggie Daley Park. A control group of 50 participants received a cupcake simply for participating in the study and rated their mood. Another 50 people who didn’t receive a cupcake rated how they thought recipients would feel after receiving a cupcake.

A third group of 50 people were told they could give a cupcake to strangers and were asked to rate their own mood as well as how they thought the recipients would feel. Once again, researchers found that those who received a cupcake as a result of a random act of kindness felt better than the person giving it thought.

What’s more, people who got a cupcake because of an act of kindness ranked higher on a happiness scale than those who got one just for taking part in the study, suggesting they got an emotional boost from the gesture, in addition to the cupcake itself.

“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.

How to show others you care

The idea that kindness can improve well-being is not new. Studies have shown that prosocial behavior — basically, willingly helping others — can help reduce people’s daily stress levels, and that simple acts of connection, like texting a friend, mean more than a lot. of us think so. But researchers who study kindness and friendship say they hope the new findings strengthen the scientific case for doing these kinds of gestures more often.

“I’ve discovered that kindness can be a really hard sell,” said Dr. Tara Cousineau, clinical psychologist, meditation teacher and author of “The Kindness Cure: How The Science of Compassion Can Heal Your Heart and Your World.” .

“People desire kindness but often feel embarrassed by the idea of ​​being nice.”

Stress can also prevent people from being kind to others, she said, as can the “little voice of judgment” in people’s heads that makes them wonder if their gesture or gift will be wrong. interpreted, or whether it will induce the recipient to pay. it comes back.

“When the impulse of kindness arises,” Dr. Cousineau said, “we totally think about it.”

One act of kindness is unlikely to backfire, she said, and in some cases it can spawn even more kindness. Ms Jennifer Oldham, 36, who lost her nine-year-old daughter Hallie in July after a tree fell on the car she was in during a storm, recently started a Facebook group – Keeping Kindness for Hallie – which encourages participants to engage in random acts of kindness.

People bought groceries and formula for others in Hallie’s honor. They donated school supplies and gave hydrangeas to strangers.

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

Sometimes it’s something much dumber. When Dr. Kimberly Britt, president of Phoenix College in Arizona, left for a week’s vacation in July, her vice president of student affairs hid 60 rubber chickens in her office.

“She did it so I couldn’t find them all immediately, and it took me a while,” she said. “But it was supposed to bring a smile to my day when I got back.”

He did — and has since inspired Dr. Britt to launch a random acts of kindness challenge on campus. They’ve recorded 200 acts of kindness so far, including a teacher who went out of his way to spend time with an emotionally challenged student; a staff member bringing food to the office; and another who made coffee for all his colleagues.

If you’re not already used to doing random kind acts — or if it doesn’t come naturally to you — Dr. Franco says to start by thinking about what you enjoy doing.

“It’s not about you saying, ‘Oh man, now I have to learn how to bake cookies to be nice,'” she said. “It’s about: What skills and talents do you already have? And how can you turn that into an offering for other people? »

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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