What’s Behind Kindness?

The site for the Greater Good Science Center at the UC Berkeley has an intriguing article examining a study on the motivations behind acts of kindness. Based on a statistical analysis called exploratory factor analysis (EFA), the researchers came up with four categories of human kindness:

  • Genuine kindness (benevolence)
  • Strategic kindness (maximizing gain and avoiding cost or loss)
  • Norm-motivated kindness (reciprocity, helping—and punishing—to uphold fairness)
  • Self-reported kindness

The article states,

The upshot? We’re all inclined towards genuine kindness to different degrees, partly as a function of how we generally feel—and perhaps surprisingly, how smart we are. Beyond genuine kindness, other kinds of kindness are influenced by age, sex, income—and whether or not we have children. By the way, their analyses do not reveal whether one person is more or less kind than another. Rather, they tell a story about where people’s kindness—however scant or abundant—is coming from.

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The research indicates that how we “generally feel—that is, whether we’d characterize ourselves as having more positive or negative feelings in life—influences our tendency towards genuine kindness. For example, having a lower tendency to experience negative emotions is associated with more genuine kindness. In other words, if you’re not often in a bad mood, you’re more likely to behave kindly in an unrequited way.” Furthermore, those “who scored higher on a battery of cognitive, attention, and IQ tests also tended to be more genuinely kind—but no more, or less, likely to exhibit kindness based on strategic or norm-motivated concerns. Nor did they describe themselves as more kind.” Finally, demographics matter. “As people get older, genuine kindness falls. So does norm-motivated kindness. This doesn’t mean that older people are chronically less kind. It just suggests that they may be less concerned with reciprocity, fairness, and reputation—and their kindness hinges more on considering costs and benefits. The researchers observed a similar pattern for monthly income: As income increased, genuine kindness fell, which is consistent with a growing literature on the harmful effects on inequality on the privileged.” Perhaps surprisingly, “people who were parents also scored lower on genuine kindness, while showing no differences on any of the other kindness factors.” And while “women scored higher in self-reported kindness,” this “did not play out for genuinely kind behavior, which was actually more common in men.”

In short, the “study is important because it begins to systematically chart out the mental and behavioral underpinnings and contextual parameters of human kindness, to provide a theoretical blueprint for the growing community of research converging on age-old issues concerning human goodness and survival.”