A new study led by the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Chicago has found that acts of kindness can have a stronger impact on their recipients than expected. Although givers often tend to focus on the object they are providing or the action they are performing, receivers actually concentrate on the feelings of warmth the act of kindness has conjured up. These findings suggest that givers’ “miscalibrated expectations” can sometimes function as a barrier to performing prosocial actions such as helping, sharing, or donating.
To quantify these attitudes and behaviors, scientists performed a series of experiments. For instance, they recruited 84 participants in the Maggie Daley Park in Chicago who had to choose whether to give a stranger away a cup of hot chocolate or keep it for themselves. Recipients had to report their moods, while givers were asked how they thought recipients felt after getting the gift. Many givers underestimated the effects of their act. While they expected recipients’ mood at an average of 2.7 on a scale from -5 (significantly more negative than normal) to 5 (much more positive than normal), recipients reported an average of 3.5.
“People aren’t way off base. They get that being kind to people makes them feel good. What we don’t get is how good it really makes others feel,” explained study lead author Amit Kumar, an assistant professor of Marketing at UT Austin. “Performers are not fully taking into account that their warm acts provide value from the act itself. The fact that you’re being nice to others adds a lot of value beyond whatever the thing is.”
In a laboratory setting, the researchers added another component to assess the consequences of kindness. After participants either received a gift from the lab store or from another participant, they played a game in which they were asked to divide $100 between themselves and an unknown study recipient. The recipients who received their initial gift through another participant’s random act of kindness instead of from the lab store were more generous to strangers during the game, dividing the money almost equally.
“It turns out generosity can actually be contagious. Receivers of a prosocial act can pay it forward. Kindness can actually spread,” Professor Kumar concluded.
The study is published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.