What we do and don’t know about kindness

In recent years, psychologists have gained a deeper understanding of human kindness and its benefits, but as Claudia Hammond writes, there’s still so much to explore.S

Since the pandemic began, people tell me they’ve been thinking a lot more about kindness. Maybe they’ve noticed the mutual aid groups that have sprung up around the world to help during lockdowns, or perhaps it’s because the cessation of normal everyday life has forced them to reconsider their values and what really matters in life.

Kindness might once have been considered something of a soft topic, but it has begun to be taken seriously within academic research. When developmental psychologist Robin Banerjee – who is leading a new study on kindness in partnership with the BBC – surveyed past research, he found just 35 papers on kindness in psychology journals in the whole of the 1980s. In the past decade, there were more than 1,000. 

But there is still plenty to discover, so the BBC has just launched a huge online public science project called the Kindness Test, in collaboration with a team from the University of Sussex in the UK. It’s open now and many thousands of people from all over the globe have already completed it. The hope is that this research will start the process of obtaining a fuller picture of kindness in today’s world.

Here’s what some of those thousand research papers can already tell us, and what is still to be discovered:

WHAT WE ALREADY KNOW

Acting kindly makes us feel good

One morning, people walking down a street in the Canadian city of Vancouver were asked to take part in an experiment run by the American psychologist Elizabeth Dunn. They were given an envelope containing either a $5 or $20 note. Half the people were instructed to spend the money on themselves. The other half were instructed to use the money to buy a present for someone else or to donate the money to charity. In both cases, they had until 17:00 that day to spend the money.

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