We know intuitively that kindness makes the world brighter. Now science is confirming what we know in our hearts.
University of Maryland Assistant Professor Kurt Gray asks a lot of interesting questions as head of the Mind Perception and Morality Lab. In his talk for TED, Gray starts with the story of Bruce Anderson. He was working on the family car when it slipped off the jack and pinned him to the ground. His 17-year-old son, Riley, saw his father under the car. He lifted the back end of the 2.5 ton car and freed his father. When asked about it, Riley shrugged it off, saying anyone would have done the same.
So Gray poses the question: What does it take to do good in the world? His answer: self-control, “agency: their capacity for action, tenacity and perseverence”.
Then he flips it around. It’s not that those with agency can do good necessarily but that doing good gives us agency. In fact, merely trying to help another person may give us enough physical agency to give even the weakest of us here the strength to lift up that car.
He says two things are essential for this to work:
- Self-fulfilling prophecies: “If I lead you to do good, then you come to see yourself as a little more like a hero, and then you begin to act like one, with increased agency.”
- Embodiment: “Our thoughts and our experiences are tightly tied to our bodies. In other words, they are embodied, and this means that simply activating mental associations can have physical effects.”
To test this, he split a group into two and turned half of them into good doers. Each received a dollar to donate to charity. The other half were told they could keep the dollar. Then he gave them a hand grip and asked them to squeeze it as long as they could. Those in the charity group squeezed it 20% longer.
In the second study he did the same manipulations, then asked people to hold a 5-pound weight as long as they could. Again, those who donated the dollar held the weight considerably longer.
In the third study, people held the weight while writing a story about themselves. They would write about getting some work done or about helping someone. Those who wrote about helping another could hold the weight longer.
The same thing worked for evil. Those who wrote about doing something bad also held the weight longer, showing how important the power of intention really is.
Findings of a study he released in January 2012—this time experimenting with pain, pleasure and taste—confirmed Gray’s earlier hypotheses. It turns out, as a summary of the study explains,
A nurse’s tender loving care really does ease the pain of a medical procedure, and grandma’s cookies really do taste better, if we perceive them to be made with love.
This gives me hope.