Why Are We Kind?

With Dr Oliver Scott Curry: Exploring explanations for altruism

In this second post, with Oxford University anthropologist Dr Curry, we look at scientific explanations of kindness. Be sure not to miss our first post, ‘Does Kindness Create Happiness?’, based on research we commissioned from Oxford University.

Parents make sacrifices for their children. Friends drop everything to help friends. Travelers leave generous tips at restaurants. Soldiers risks their lives to save their comrades. How are we to explain such acts of kindness, benevolence and altruism?

kindness.org was founded in order to make it simple to choose kindness and create a kinder world. In order to do this most effectively, we looked to the science of kindness to help us understand why people behave the way they do, and how and under what circumstances they are kind to one another.

Naturally good

Humans are deeply social animals. Our species (and our ancestors) have been living in social groups for over 50 million years, and for the past 2 million years we have been making a living as intensely collaborative hunter-gathers. During this time, we have lived together, loved together, worked together, and relied on one another to make it through, to survive and thrive. Cooperation has been key to our success.

Recent advances in the behavioral sciences are shedding new light on this cooperative side of human nature. Game theory — the mathematical analysis of social interaction — tells us that there are, in principle, many different ways of cooperating. And biology and psychology tell us in which of these ways humans do, in practice, cooperate. These diverse theories of social, cooperative and even altruistic behavior — acting at a cost to benefit others — explain many different ‘kinds of kindness’.

Keep it in the family

To start with, evolution has favored the tendency to be altruistic to family members. This is because when you help people who share your genes, you are helping your ‘genes for altruism’ to spread in the population, and so proliferate down through the generations.

Evolutionary theory leads us to expect to see organisms designed to detect and deliver benefits to their family members. It’s no accident that the word ‘kindness’ comes from the word ‘kin’.

Examples of such ‘kin altruism’ are widespread in nature — most obviously in cases of parental care. In humans, kin altruism is accompanied by deep feelings of love, commitment, and compassion. And sympathy — a sensitivity to the needs of others — originally evolved to facilitate parental care, before becoming available to facilitate other types of cooperation.

This theory of kin altruism predicts that these tendencies will be triggered by others who exhibit cues of genetic relatedness, especially in vulnerable children.

All together now

Evolution has also favored the tendency to work together, and be cooperative and kind to other members of your team.

Examples of such teamwork — for the purposes of collective defense, as in herds and shoals, or collective aggression, as in collaborative hunting or inter-group conflict — are found in many species.

In humans, this process has led to a group psychology that gives rise to intense loyalty, unity, and ‘parochial altruism’, and can explain kindness in the form of camaraderie, civic-mindedness, community spirit, and commitment to a cause ‘greater than yourself’.

And the theory predicts that these tendencies will be elicited by other members of the groups with which you identify (including strangers).

I’ll scratch your back

Evolution has also conferred on our species the tendency to do favors for others if this creates a ‘virtuous circle’ in which the favor is returned at a later date. If you help someone when they really need it, and this leads them to help you when you really need it, in the long run you both end up better off than if you had tried to go it alone.

Such ‘reciprocal altruism’ has proved to be surprisingly rare in other animals — although there are glimmers of it in many mammals and especially primates. In humans, reciprocal altruism is implemented by psychological mechanisms that: detect those in need of help, initiate cooperation, signal recognition of favors received, keep track of who has returned the favor and who has not, make amends for favors not returned, and accept repentant cheats back into the fold.

This theory can explain kindness in the form of sympathy (for those in need), trust (when initiating cooperation), reciprocity, gratitude (for favors yet to be returned), friendship, and forgiveness, as well as righteous indignation at injustice and unfairness.

It can also explain kindness to strangers. An altruistic act may be the start of a beautiful friendship, or a way of making a new friend. After all, ‘a stranger is just a friend you haven’t met yet’. In any case, it might be better to ‘err on the side of caution’, and be altruistic just in case you happen to see the person again.

This theory also predicts that these tendencies will most likely be triggered when individuals expect to meet again, where your cooperative (or uncooperative) behavior can be observed by others, and towards others who have helped in the past, or will be able to help in the future.

With great power comes great responsibility

Evolution has also favored various different ways of settling disputes peacefully, instead of coming to blows. This can be done by dividing disputed resources. It can be done by acknowledging prior possession of resources and territory. And it can be done through ‘ritual contests’ in which the powerful display their prowess (sometimes through acts of generosity and largesse), to earn the respect of (and elicit deference from) their peers.

In humans, these processes have given rise to a psychology that strives for a fair bargain, that recognizes and respects others’ property, and above all engages in ‘competitive altruism’. Humans commonly engage in costly and conspicuous displays of prowess, resources, and even altruism, especially when competing for status. Experiments suggest that a tendency for the strong to display status by helping the weak is present cross-culturally.

Thus, ‘competitive altruism’ can explain kindness in the form of generosity, bravery, heroism, chivalry, magnanimity, noblesse oblige, and public service.

This theory also predicts that these tendencies will be triggered in the presence of rivals or potential mates, in any situation where acting altruistically may enhance one’s status. This includes altruism or acts of kindness to strangers. Helping a stranger may improve your reputation — as a trustworthy or heroic person — irrespective of whether the recipient is in a position to return the favor.

Onwards and upwards

The good news is that humans are naturally kind, under the right circumstances. These four theories — kin altruism, mutualism, reciprocal altruism, and competitive altruism — can explain kindness towards family, friends, colleagues and spouses, and even to strangers under some conditions.

And the human capacity for culture — the ability to invent and share new ways of living — has allowed us to build and elaborate upon this benevolent biological foundation, with rules, norms and other social institutions that further stimulate and amplify cooperation and altruism.

The more we know about kindness — such as its biological underpinnings, the psychological circuitry, and the social conditions that facilitate it — the more effectively we will be able to design interventions to cultivate it.

And of course, this is only the beginning of the story. Perhaps there are more types of kindness as yet undiscovered. There is still much that we do not know about kindness and there is still much work to be done.

This will be the subject of our next post…

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