The Psychology of Kindness

On the human need for personal kindness and kindness of others, and what it means for the future of humanity

Kindness or benevolence is a very important psychological attribute. We are kind to others for various altruistic and sometimes selfish reasons. An individual may be kind to a homeless man and give him a blanket because of sympathetic and empathetic reasons or a man may be kind to a woman due to ulterior motives. Kindness is thus triggered from personal motivations including need for fame or reputation, need for love or companionship or from genuine empathetic and sympathetic considerations.

Kindness towards a homeless man is a sympathetic type. whereas kindness kindness towards a friend is an empathetic type.

Kindness towards someone in need may come from altruism or need for personal reputation. For example, your act of kindness may arise from your need to be seen as a good Samaritan or a benevolent member of society. Or a man may be kind towards others because he needs fame for his donations and gifts to society. A man may be kind to men or women as there may be a need to gain other people’s affections, love, sexual favors, respect or companionship. So kindness may be motivated by empathy, sympathy, need for reputation, respect or other ulterior motives.

Some people are naturally kind and cannot refuse if someone asks them for a favor. Kindness is related more to mental strength than weakness. Developing a theory of kindness in psychology could involve studying the activity of the brain and neural circuits when people suddenly feel this emotion of overwhelming kindness. Thus a physiological basis is important in a psychological theory of kindness. There may also be “kindness gene” and some people may be kinder than others due to hereditary reasons, they may have had a kind parent and thus inherited the trait. Kindness can be learnt through social conditioning and some people are kind because they watched and learnt from their parents or teachers.

I personally believe that kindness is an innate psychological trait and some people are more kind because they are born that way. I will not go back to the nature versus nurture debates but learning kindness from others may finally become too superficial if there is no innate natural kindness. So, I would suggest that kindness is innate and kind people are born that way.

Psychologists must definitely study the kindness gene and if there is any, what triggers kindness, what kind of emotion or neural activity is related to kindness and how it can be defined in psychological terms. The social conditioning of kindness is a possible theory and as I said, social conditioning may not finally lead to genuine kindness in individuals, as kindness I believe is inherent or innate and not taught or learned.

I wrote in my other essay on Altruism that altruism, which is a more purposeful or social kindness could be due to ulterior or unconscious motives of recognition. Do philanthropists always give away wealth because they are genuinely kind or are they looking for fame, reputation, respect and recognition for their philanthropic services?

Kindness could be based on sympathy, empathy, need for fame or personal recognition or a sense of duty or responsibility towards society or fellow citizens. So, some kids are kind, give away their clothes to homeless people, because they are naturally kind and sympathetic. Some may see a homeless person and feel empathy as they too may have been homeless at some point. Some men may intentionally develop personal kindness because they need fame and recognition and others feel a sense of strong responsibility towards society and perform kind acts. So there are specifically six reasons suggesting six types of kindness according to the underlying reason or cause.

1. Empathetic

2. Sympathetic

3. Altruistic or social

4. Motive oriented

5. Responsible

6. Superstition-based

These six different types can be elaborated with more examples. You feel sympathetic towards your dog and loosen his chain and you feel empathetic towards your friend and help them with advice or resources. People may feel a genuine altruistic need to give or they may have ulterior motives such as fame, recognition or even money and success. The kindness related to social responsibility comes from a genuine need to influence society, and kindness in older people is often accompanied by this overwhelming sense of responsibility towards other human beings so this is a type of social kindness.

I would suggest that children are more triggered by genuine sympathy and the adults are motivated by need for recognition or social responsibility when they engage in acts of kindness.

Sometimes you will see people leaving large amounts of cash in the Church or donating large amounts of money to others because they feel it will bring them good luck. This is superstition-based or can be termed as “superstitional” kindness. Let us turn to responsibility. Some individuals are “kind” towards a cause because they may feel responsible towards society and may want to do something about the cause. You see an ad to donate clothes and money to refugees in a foreign country. You immediately decide to give a large sum quite impulsively. Is this impulse due to genuine sympathy, empathy, responsibility, altruism, superstition or recognition need? As I wrote in the essay on the Psychology of Altruism, there may be ulterior motives for being altruistic and genuine selfless altruism is rare or non-existent. However, kindness or generosity as a result of social responsibility or responsibility towards other less privileged individuals may be considered as an altruistic type of kindness. So, altruism and social responsibility are associated in fundamental ways.

Now let me talk about the human need for kindness and this means both giving kindness and receiving kindness. Humans do have a genuine need for love, affection, happiness and also kindness. Kindness comes from love, affection, sympathy, empathy so may be considered a type of secondary or derived emotion rather than primary emotion such as love or anger. Let us say, sympathy creates kindness but it is necessary to give and receive kindness because human beings are social beings. Kindness creates a bond between the giver and the receiver and in cases when you are showing kindness to a cause, it is a generic social or altruistic kindness. It also creates your emotional bond with society and your cause. So, giving creates social bonds and that is why it exists in the first place. Kindness created social bonds and helped build families and societies. On the other hand, receiving also evokes a sense of gratitude among the receivers of kind acts and helps to create attachments and generosity. If you are generous towards a homeless man, he may learn from you and become generous towards others when he is no longer homeless. So, kindness develops or creates a cycle of positive interaction in society. Such positive interactions are at the core of social change, transformations and a spirit of genuine concern for each other. This is ultimately the goal of humanity.