In an overwhelming world, small acts of kindness can seem to mean little. In a world where bad things happen every day, how much can a small action really matter?
It turns out that the impact of a small act of kindness is much stronger than we realize, both in terms of how the recipient feels, and in terms of their willingness to prepay for that kindness. In a recent research published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, researchers conducted a series of experiments to test how meaningful some of these small acts of kindness are to the people who receive them, and how likely they are to pay for that kindness in advance.
The answer, it turns out, is that our acts of kindness have a much greater impact on others than we realize. Kindness, even if it seems small and unimportant, is very important.
People consistently underestimate the impact of their kindness
In the first experiment, researchers recruited 84 people in a Chicago park and gave them the option of receiving a hot chocolate or pouring that hot chocolate to a stranger. seventy five of them chose to give the hot chocolate to another. When asked how they felt about it, the people who received the hot chocolate as a gift reported a high sense of warmth and happiness. For the givers, when asked to rate how the recipients would feel, they consistently underestimated the impact it would have.
“Performers of an act of kindness may miss the fact that just a warm, kind act can be meaningful to recipients beyond what they give to them,” said Amit Kumaraan assistant professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, and one of the authors of the article.
For the second experiment, researchers tested whether receiving a cupcake as an act of kindness would make them happier than simply getting a cupcake. The people who received a cupcake as a kind act from someone else reported feeling happier than if they just got one from the researchers.
“People again systematically underestimate how positive recipients would feel after a random act of kindness,” Kumar said. “People understand that people love cupcakes. We know that cupcakes are things people like, and that getting a cupcake is positive, but one pattern suggests that what forecasters miss is this extra warmth that comes from receiving an act of kindness.
People are more likely to prepay kindness than we realize
In the third experiment, researchers tested whether receiving a kind act would motivate people to pass it on. To do that, the participants were given a $100 gift card and then asked to split it with another but was given discretion as to what that split was.
On average, the people who received the gift card as an act of kindness were much more likely to prepay for that kindness by splitting the $100 evenly, as opposed to people who simply received the gift card. “It turns out generosity that can be contagious at times,” Kumar said. However, the people involved in the act of kindness again underestimated the impact their actions would have on the actions of others.
“These miscalibrated expectations can be of concern to the givers, as they create a misguided psychological barrier to participating in these actions more often in everyday life,” Kumar said. “If you knew you had an even more positive impact, you’d be more likely to take this action, but if you think it’s only going to have a small impact, you’re less likely to pursue this behavior. ”