The Kindness Paradox: Prosocial Behavior in Everyday Life

When I go to work out (be kind), I walk past a house where an excerpt from this quote below is painted on a chair in the front yard. The quote is from Kurt Vonnegut’s fifth novel, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. Eliot Rosewater is talking to his wife Sylvia about how he must baptize the twins of a friend, even though he is not a religious person. Sylvia asks him what he will say, and he responds:

“Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

I like this quote because I am fond of anybody who feels free to swear at a christening, even in jest. But it leads to an interesting question. We know that being kind to someone makes you feel good, so why don’t people take greater advantage of making other people feel good? When I help someone get an item off the top shelf at the market, it reinforces to myself the thought of just how wonderful of a person I am. Psychologists refer to this kind of helping act as prosocial behavior and they claim that it has all kinds of positive side effects.

But there is a paradox. People who commit acts of kindness consistently underestimate how much their recipients appreciate the gesture. The reasoning goes that if people thought the recipient gave a damn, they might be acting kindly more often.

Nicholas Epley and Amit Kumar have done a lot of work on this question, and they claim the solution lies in the cross patterns of dimensional thinking. Those that express kindness view their own behavior through the lens of agency, they focus on their actions and on how well they perform. Receivers tend to think about the communal aspects of actions, and judge them based on perceptions of warmth and cooperation (see Abele & Wojciszke, 2007). Because they focus on the self, performers tend to miscalibrate, they underestimate the recipient’s positive experience.  Epley and Kumar offer two reasons for why this may happen. If they were economists instead of social psychologists, they would call these explanations Noise and Rational Expectations.

Mechanism One: Noise

“If expressers are primarily concerned about the competence of their prosocial act but recipients derive value from the high degree of warmth that a prosocial act typically conveys, then people who perform prosocial actions are likely to underestimate the positive impact of their prosociality on recipients” (Kumar and Epley 2018)

Being a person of unusual height, it is common for me to help people get things off the top shelf at the market. When I do this, I think about my performance. I am a person who lacks social skills, so this is always a good test of how capable or effective I am in this type of exposure. When I am at the coffee shop, there are many occasions where upon leaving, my table is in demand. I may leave early and offer my table just to reinforce to myself how kind I am. A “thank you” from the recipient is an indicator of the quality of my performance, not an assessment of how they feel.

Mechanism Two: Rational Expectations

“Expressers may assume that recipients are already aware of their gratitude, a ‘curse of knowledge’ that makes expression seem unnecessary. Believing one’s gratitude is more obvious than it actually is would lead expressers to underestimate surprise in a gratitude recipient.” (Kumar and Epley 2018)

In this case, the recipient already knows that I know they are grateful, so why bother to express it. Any response on their part that seems effusive is viewed as over the top, artificial, an act. Here the “thank you” is a throwaway line, as meaningless as a “how are you?” No response at all is viewed as rude. It is no wonder the expresser underestimates the warmth because it is not there.

Kumar and Epley test these propositions in numerous studies, all experimental in design, and there is some supportive evidence. I also see a third option.


The Solution may be in the Dimension

I was on the redline train going north on the CTA in Chicago. (I learn a lot about human behavior hanging out on the train.) A woman got up to leave and her backpack strap caught on the seat. I reached over to help and was loudly scolded with a “No. No. No!” Given the context, it was very understandable behavior on her part. Being the recipient, she was thinking communally and perceived harm. I was playing the role of agent and was caught by surprise. My action was conscious and deliberate, hers was automatic and affective.

I suspect there is a systematic selection bias at work in these studies. The University of Chicago Institutional Review Board (IRB) is good at what they do, so none of these experiments take place in a harmful context. People are sitting in cafés, getting free cupcakes, or writing letters to a long lost friend. I do not know about you, but if I am sitting in a café and an MBA student walks up to me and offers to buy me lunch, I would be shocked, but not scared.

When filling out the questionnaire, expressers of kindness, operating in their own world, oblivious to the context, are guessing about the nature of the recipient’s response. That random evaluation aggregates into something approximating the true population mean. Recipients, operating in the selectively biased communal world, where no potential harm exists, respond in ways that are quite positive and warm, well above that population mean.


Isn’t it Romantic

Finding dimensions in data is a statistical exercise. Social psychologists are looking for patterns or consistencies in the responses of people to questionnaires. That is informative and interesting, but now we need to think about this. The easy inference is to claim the way to greater positive social exchange is to reduce the sense of agency in expressers and make them think more communally. Everyone will then be on the same plane and the world will be wonderful.

Recently, I read Andrea Wulf’s latest book, Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self. For people like Goethe, Schiller, Fichte, and Schlegel, reclaiming the self requires agentic action. The art of being selfish is to understand one’s place in nature.

“Only if we are fully aware of ourselves — of our needs, our wishes, and of our thoughts — can we truly embrace the other. This emphasis on the Ich means being ‘self-aware’ as the prerequisite for ‘being aware and concerned for the other. Only through self-awareness can we feel empathy with others. Only through self-reflection can we question our behaviour towards others. Self-examination in that sense is for the greater good — for us, for our wider community, for society in general and for our planet.”

Yes, a greater sense of community would be a good thing. But that derives from an enhanced sense of agency. Our job is to think about our path. Am I being self-absorbed? Am I a morally good person? How can I exercise my free will in a way that builds trust with other individuals? My struggle to be a kinder person is with myself. As Goethe wrote, “As soon as you trust yourself, you will know how to live.” (Faust, First Part) Agency helps us realize the emotional elements we share with other human beings.