I am a keen listener to All In The Mind, the Radio 4 programme about psychology, so I was delighted when the presenter, Claudia Hammond, devoted a whole episode to the theme of kindness just before we returned to school. Kindness is one of the Academy’s three core values. A strength of the heart, it is a cornerstone of our Academy culture and central to our approach to education. I was therefore fascinated to hear what the psychological research has to tell us about the subject.
The episode was devoted to the Kindness Test, a mass research project from the University of Sussex. The project seeks to explore how kindness is viewed within society at large and will add to the growing research base on the importance of kindness, exploring issues such as:
- What are the most common kind acts people carry out?
- Where do people most often experience kindness?
- What are the barriers to behaving more kindly?
- How is kindness valued in the workplace?
- Is kindness viewed as a weakness?
- What prevents people from being kinder?
- How does kindness relate to factors such as well-being, mental health, geographical location, gender and personality?
- How is kindness connected with compassion and empathy?
- How does kindness relate to our value systems?
The questionnaire for the research project is only open to participants who are 18 years of age or older, so unfortunately our students cannot participate – although I think they would have a lot to say about the topic and plenty of examples to share! But the radio programme which accompanied it was a fascinating exploration of ideas around kindness, and what we already know. Here are some of my key takeaways:
Kindness is instinctive
Chief researcher Professor Robert Banerjee explained the theory that the “warm glow” we get from helping others activates the same part of our brain as eating delicious food, or receiving a treat for ourselves. Studies have shown that young children at the age of two will help others, or comfort those in distress, even when no reward is expected for themselves. All of this suggests that kindness to others is something instinctive that gives our species an evolutionary advantage. Perhaps kindness strengthened our stone age or Neanderthal communities, building trust and mutual support between individuals so that they would function more effectively as one unit? This evolutionary advantage now manifests in our modern society as the “warm glow” of doing something kind for someone else.
Kindness is selfless
Even though we receive a wellbeing boost when we’re kind to others, psychologists don’t think this is the reason why we are kind. In fact, if we are kind to others only because we know we’ll get rewarded for it – either with praise, recognition, or a physical reward – we don’t get the same “warm glow” as when we’re kind just because we want to help somebody else out. That selfless kindness, when we help someone out without any thought for recognition or reward for ourselves, feels better than doing the right thing because we know we’ll get something out of it. It sounds like a contradiction – but it makes sense!
Kindness builds a strong culture
Pinky Lilani, one of the guests on the programme, discussed research undertaken with the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford into kindness and leadership. Using “leading lights” including Liverpool Manager Jürgen Klopp, the researchers found that kindness has the ability to build trust, confidence and loyalty in business, sport, and industry. It is becoming an increasingly influential leadership style, characterised by empathy and respect – and it gets results.
Kindness isn’t soft
One of the criticisms of kindness is that it’s soft, or that is can be perceived as a weakness if you’re too kind. But actually, providing honest critique and feedback to somebody is kind, as it helps them to improve – but it is neither soft, weak or easy. It’s actually really hard to do. But, when someone can do better, the kindest thing we can do it to help them to get there.
At Churchill we work really hard to build a culture where we can provide that honest, helpful feedback to help one another improve. We talk about being “hard on the content, supportive of the person.” This means approaching feedback with the highest expectations, but with empathy about how the critique will be received. On the other side, we expect those receiving the feedback to focus on the improvements they can make to continue to make a positive difference to themselves, understanding that the feedback comes with kind intentions.
Kindness helps us understand diversity
Robin Banerjee gave a really helpful explanation of how empathy and kindness help us understand difference. He puts his case so perfectly that I quote it here rather than attempting to summarise:
The fact of the matter is that there is always going to be differences of opinion, different perspectives, different points of view. Part of the challenge for all of us as we grow up…is navigating difference, working out how to respond when other people have different perspectives from you. And that’s the cornerstone of empathy – to walk in someone else’s shoes, to see the world from their perspective. So I think one of the things that we need to recognise is that it isn’t about standardising everything so that everyone thinks in exactly the same way. The beauty of our world comes from difference, comes from diversity. So kindness is all about the stance that we take in navigating that diversity.Robin Banerjee, Professor of Psychology at the University of Sussex and principal investigator for the Kindness Test
It was a fascinating programme, full of insights into a quality that is so important to us at Churchill. I have filled in the questionnaire; I look forward to hearing what the research discovers about kindness in our world today when it is published in 2022.