Random acts of kindness attract more attention

AUSTIN, Texas — While they often increase happiness, acts of kindness like picking up a friend or bringing food for an ailing family member can be rare because people underestimate how good those acts make the recipients feel, according to one new study from The University of Texas at Austin.

The study, by Amit Kumar, assistant professor of marketing at the UT Austin McCombs School of Business, and Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago found that while givers are more likely to focus on the object they provide or the action they take , but the recipients focus on the warm feelings evoked by the act of kindness. This means that donors’ “miscalibrated expectations” can act as a barrier to more pro-social behaviors such as helping, sharing, or donating.

The research is online in advance in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

To quantify these attitudes and behaviors, the researchers conducted a series of experiments.

In one, researchers recruited 84 participants at Chicago’s Maggie Daley Park. Participants could choose to give a mug of hot chocolate from the park’s food kiosk to a stranger or keep it for themselves. Seventy-five agreed to give it away.

The researchers delivered the hot chocolate to the stranger and told him that the study participant had chosen to give him his drink. Recipients reported on their mood, and performers shared how they thought the recipients felt after receiving the drink.

The performers underestimated the importance of their plot. They expected recipients to have an average sentiment of 2.7 on a scale of -5 (much more negative than normal) to 5 (much more positive than normal), while recipients reported an average of 3.5.

“People are not far from the base,” Kumar said. “They know that being kind to people makes them feel good. What we don’t understand is how good it really makes other people feel.”

Researchers conducted a similar experiment using cupcakes in the same park. They recruited 200 participants and divided them into two groups. In the control group, 50 participants received a cupcake for their participation. They rated their mood, and the other 50 people rated how they thought the recipients felt after receiving a cupcake.

For the second group of 100, 50 people were told they could give their cupcake to strangers as gifts. They rated their own mood and the expected mood of the cupcake recipients. The researchers found that the participants rated the happiness of the cupcake recipients at about the same level, regardless of whether they received their cupcake through an accidental kindness or from the researchers. Additionally, recipients who received a cupcake through an act of kindness were happier than recipients in the control group.

“The performers don’t fully appreciate that their warm-hearted performances derive value from the performance itself,” Kumar said. “The fact that you’re nice to others adds a lot of value beyond what it is.”

In a laboratory experiment, Kumar and Epley added a component to assess the consequences of kindness. Participants first received either a gift from the lab store or were gifted by another participant and then played a game. All participants who received an item were asked to split $100 between themselves and an unknown study recipient.

Researchers found that recipients who received their lab gift through the casual kindness of another participant were more generous to strangers during play. They split the $100 more evenly, giving away $48.02 versus $41.20 on average.

“It turns out that generosity can actually be contagious,” Kumar said. “Recipients of a prosocial act can pass it on. Kindness can actually spread.”

For more details on this research, read McComb’s Big Ideas feature story and watch the video explaining Kumar’s work.

media contact

Jeremy Simon
McComb’s School of Business
p: 512-232-6031
e: [email protected]


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