If you watch the news these days, it’s easy to come away with a dim view of humanity. Between the pandemic, the economic downturn and widespread social unrest, we are inundated with disturbing images of a world struggling to find its way. Media reports, which tend to focus on negative events, paint a disappointing and sometimes frightening vision of our species.
Well, take heart. A recent study from Ohio State University shows that, overall, most people are generous and helpful toward others. They are inclined to engage in what sociologists call “prosocial behavior,” the obvious opposite of antisocial behavior. As the authors of the study put it, “people overwhelmingly chose to be generous to others — even to strangers.”
Why? Well, they found four primary factors motivating us to behave in ways that benefit others:
- Being a recipient of kindness: When someone does something kind or helpful for us, we are motivated to return the favor. This is the positive feedback loop created by giving to others.
- Rewarding someone who does good for others: When we see someone behaving kindly or generously to another person, we are inclined to “reward” that individual by behaving generously toward them.
- Living in a kind social network: Whether at home, at work, or both, we are more likely to behave kindly when our family, friends and colleagues role model generosity. It’s how we uphold shared values.
- Paying it forward: Even when we can’t repay a kindness someone has extended to us, we are motivated to seek out and help someone else in need of generosity.
The researchers point out that, overall, humans often give to others even when doing so costs them something, such as time, money, inconvenience, or, in some instances, even safety and wellbeing. This tendency (“I’ll help you even if it hurts me”) left the study authors scratching their heads. As they put it:
“From an evolutionary perspective, it’s kind of perplexing that it [generosity] even exists, because you’re decreasing your own fitness on behalf of others. And yet, we see it in bees and ants, and humans and throughout all of nature.”
In these arduous times, it’s comforting to know that kindness is a part of human nature.