Why be Useful and Kind?

Having spent a year thinking about this and reading many books, (which of course challenge each other), and having just launched the new website (www.usefulandkindunlimited.com) and it being the first day of Lent has given me pause to ask again the profound question, why be useful and kind?

Being useful and Kind has best been described as prosocial and there has been much research on prosocial psychology and behaviour.

Prosocial, in the interests of society as a whole
Chambers Dictionary


Prosocial behaviour, voluntary behaviour intended to benefit another.
Actions that benefit other people or society as a whole
Helping, sharing, donating, co-operating, and volunteering. 
Brief, Motowidlo (1986).
Obeying the rules and conforming to socially accepted behaviours (such as stopping at a "Stop" sign or paying for groceries) are also regarded as prosocial behaviours. 
Baumeister & Bushman (2007)

These actions may be motivated by empathy and by concern about the welfare and rights of others. Sanstock (2007)

Helping behaviour, prosocial behaviour and altruism are interchangeably used. Helping is the broadest term including all forms of inter-personal support.

Prosocial behaviour is narrower. The action is intended to improve the situation of the help-recipient, the actor is not motivated by the fulfilment of professional obligations and the recipient is a person not an organisation.

Altruism refers to prosocial behaviour that has an additional constraint, namely that the helper’s motivation is characterised by perspective taking and empathy. Bierhoff (2002)

Just as Seligman started to turn psychologists’ attention towards positive affect and behaviour in positive psychology away from the previous hundred years of attention on the pathological, so attention started to be paid to prosocial behaviour as the antithesis of antisocial behaviour.

There is evolutionary proof of the benefits of prosocial behaviour. We are socialised for kindness, for ‘sharing nicely’, whether holding the door open or looking after the sick, parenting our children or helping those in distress. If parents and primary caregivers had not been prosocial the human race wouldn’t have survived.

Frans de Waal (2010) said ‘it is long overdue that we jettisoned our beliefs about human nature—proposed by economists and politicians—that human society is modelled on the perpetual struggle for survival that exists in nature. This is mere projection on our part. Nature is replete with examples of cooperation and empathy’.

Yet the terrain of prosocial behaviour is more complicated than that in our modern age. We help if the cost of helping is less than the perceived benefit to the recipient. We help because we expect to have it noticed. We do it to be liked. 

We help because we hope to be helped. Or we are repaying earlier help. We believed that we would be loved or more acceptable to our parents if we were kind. Faith traditions have furnished us with helping narratives.

Prosocial behavior is defined as actions that benefit other people or society as a whole (Twenge, Ciarocco, Baumeister, & Bartels, 2007). It is characterized by helping that does not benefit the helper; in fact, prosocial behaviour is often accompanied by costs. Psychologists suggest that one way this behaviour may outweigh the associated costs concerns the human desire to belong to a group. Helping facilitates group work and in turn, provides individuals with immense benefits for the long run (Twenge et al., 2007).

From an evolutionary perspective, early humans’ survival relied strongly on the processes of giving and helping. Those who displayed prosocial dispositions were thus met with evolutionary success (Penner 2005). Group selection evinces that if two groups are in direct competition with one another, the group with the larger number of altruists will have an advantage over a group of mainly selfish individuals (Penner 2005). Kin selection, or the successful transmission of one’s genes from all sources to the next generation, is thus supported (Penner 2005). Religious practice has also been associated with prosocial and helping behaviors, as helping is often considered a religious obligation. Weight on giving and helping in the Judeo-Christian culture can be considered a primary reason that prosocial behavior is a social norm and moral imperative in Western Culture today (Knickerbocker 2003).

The term prosocial behaviour arose in the 70s leading to psychological analysis of the giving, helping and sharing processes.

Wiki, Prosocial Behavior May 2016

It is maybe a difficult socio-biological query but why was the narcissistic process so strong that we believed our genes were the strongest, somewhat paradoxically with our benefiting from prosocial behaviour! Is it that the fittest are the most prosocial? Was it actually selfish to help the wounded colleague from our tribe so that we weren’t put in the way of danger? And does the outcome justify the means. An old philosophical chestnut. Why did the Good Samaritan do it? (Luke 10: 29-3). The live comparison would be the member of the Ku Klux Clan crossing the street on his way to a meeting to help the injured Muslimand pay for her healthcare.

There is a reciprocity norm, ‘I’ll do it for you because then you will do it for me. I might get something from you immediately, or you might not pay me back for a long time, until I come to you and ask a favour’.

With egoistic motivation, self-importance or one’s own image is the primary driver for prosocial behavior (Knickerbocker 2003). Egoists thus act prosocially when reputational incentives are at stake (Simpson 2008).

Thus, altruistic individuals who are most likely to give in the absence of rewards are those who do not seek reputational gains (Simpson 2008) 

Reciprocal altruism explores the evolutionary advantages of helping unrelated individuals, where the favor is repaid in kind (Penner 2005), while indirect reciprocity addresses the receipt of such long-term benefits or rewards for short-term prosocial acts. Furthermore, altruists are more likely to indirectly reciprocate others’ prosocial behaviors (Simpson 2008) Whereas egoisim is return favours to those provided help in the past

Some demonstrate prosocial behaviour in fear of a judgement whether parental or religious - the powerful image of judgement day both for ‘reward in heaven’ or the castigation so many expect, often created from parental and religious messages. Again does the motivation negate the outcome?

Liz Dunn (2014) has shown in her now famous experiments that it is better to give than to receive by measuring the happiness of students asked to either spend a gift of money on themselves or others, even though they predicted otherwise. The field of positive psychology (Dunn 2014, Seligman 2003, 2011, Lyobimorsky 2010) has focused on the limitations of money in generating happiness. Action for Happiness http://www.actionforhappiness.orghas popularised, along with others, the idea of making Random Acts of Kindness as seen in the film Pay it forward.

We find it easier to help those close by. Those we love or are related to. Those in most need. The third sector has worked tirelessly to create positive messages about our helping those on the other side of the world. The west’s history with the developing world is often very far from prosocial behaviour, taking rather than giving, ruling rather than empowering. History is full of examples of power seeking, abuse of power, desperation to hold on to it, characterising the other as inferior. Sadly this is not just history but continues in current presidential debates.

How then can we show prosocial behaviour to those who have abused it? The depth of our psychological understanding helps hugely here. We know that the bully has often been bullied, just as all abusers have been abused even though all those abused or bullied do not go on to perpetrate that behaviour. Our understandings of defences against fear, insignificance, vulnerability and death help us to understand the acting out going on across the world.

Prosocial behaviour is about showing kindness to all. Showing love to the murderer. Healing the abuser. Demonstrating forgiveness as the inspirational Forgiveness Project (Cantacuzino 2015) shows or the Truth and Reconciliation of Nelson Mandela and others. Speaking a kind truth to power.

Yet there is an urgency which there hasn’t been in history.

Our economic system and our planetary system are now at war. Or, more accurately, our economy is at war with many forms of life on earth, including human life. What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction in humanity’s use of resources; what our economic model demands to avoid collapse is unfettered expansion. Only one of these sets of rules can be changed, and it’s not the laws of nature. Naomi Klein 2015

Are we suffering from compassion fatigue? (Moeler 1999, Rothschild 2006). Are we inured by over-presentation on the TV from Biafra to Calais? Can ideas from new physics which acknowledge we are all made from the same carbon atoms on the one hand, or religious beliefs on the other, help us to connect with our brothers and sisters? The Christian tradition speaks to this. Matthew 25:40 ‘Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’.

Self-trauma is often the precursor to our own prosocial behaviour, not wanting others to suffer as we or our loved ones have. The whole tradition of ‘wounded healer’, we heal ourselves by healing others. Service to others is also vital for post-traumatic growth.

So why if it is in our interests to give of money, time, expertise, kindness and love have we failed to do so more effectively? Nudge (Sunset CR and Thaler RH Penguin, 2009) the influential book gave birth to the Behavioural Insights Unit Marshall (2015) in Downing Street and looked at ways in which we can be persuaded to make healthy choices. Marshall (2015) also looked at why it is so hard for us to make the necessary prosocial changes to ameliorate the impacts of climate change. It also depends on who the message comes from - the notion of a Big Society fell apart when it became apparent that it was a way of dressing austerity and not the authentic encouragement of prosocial behaviour.

There is a Buddhist principle of dependent origination. The Dalai Lama notes that our own happiness is dependent on the happiness of others. The Dalai Lama (2001) observes that happiness does not come from material things but rather from a deep, genuine concern for others' happiness. Focusing on one's own needs instead of others' results in negative emotions that prevent true and lasting happiness for the self.

Ubuntuis a South African ethic or ideology focusing on people's allegiances and relations with each other.

The word comes from the Zulu and Xhosa languages. Ubuntu is seen as a traditional African concept.

It means:

humanity towards others

belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity

humanity to others

I am what I am because of who we all are

I am because we are

humanity or fellow feeling; kindness. [Nguni]

Ubuntu is seen as one of the founding principles of the new republic of South Africa and connected to the idea of an African Renaissance. Desmond Tutu said ‘Ubuntu - the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can't exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can't be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality - Ubuntu - you are known for your generosity. We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity. Ubuntu is very difficult to render into a Western language. When we want to give high praise to someone we say, “Hey, so-and-so has ubuntu”. Then you are generous, you are hospitable, you are friendly and caring and compassionate. You share what you have. It is to say, “My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in what is yours” . . . We say, “A person is a person through other persons”. A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed. To forgive is not just to be altruistic. It is the best form of self-interest. What dehumanises you inexorably dehumanises me. [Forgiveness] gives people resilience, enabling them to survive and emerge still human despite all efforts to dehumanise them.’ Tutu (2000)

This idea is simply that we can only be fully who we are because of each other.

So how can we love people into helping others? How can we model prosocial behaviour? How can we lead them and ourselves to it?

Duncan Fraser