Monday, June 17, 2013

How should we encourage kindness?

Kindness is the greatest of all virtues. That is not just my opinion - the importance of kindness has been widely acknowledged for thousands of years. Some prefer to say that charity or love is the greatest virtue, but that seems to me to amount to the same thing. The concept charity or love that has particular virtue is loving-kindness. 

Psychological research provides support for the view that kindness is worth encouraging. Apart from obvious benefits to the recipients, there is evidence that kindness also has positive spill-over effects. Research by Simone Schnall and colleagues indicates that when people see another person perform a good deed they are more likely to be helpful to others. Such behaviour seems to be linked to feelings of elevation.

There is also evidence that kindness is good for those who practice it. Research by Barbara Fredrickson, Bethany Kok et al suggests that when people generate feelings of loving-kindness they tend to experience improved physical health (measured by cardiac vagal tone). The research suggests that perceptions of positive social connections with others account for the link between positive emotions and improved physical health.

I feel slightly embarrassed to be writing about the merits of kindness and how we should encourage greater kindness. That is partly because I am aware of shortcomings in my own behaviour. The main reason, however, is that the merits of kindness have been so widely acknowledged for such a long period that it probably seems platitudinous for someone like me to be asking people to consider how we should encourage it.

Some of my friends might think I should leave advocacy of kindness to religious leaders such as the Dalai Lama (who is currently in Australia preaching kindness) and focus my own efforts on promoting more widespread understanding of the merits of free markets in enabling individuals to promote the good of others by pursuing their own interests. I urge those friends to read on and to further consider the relationship between kindness and self-interest.

I think economists, among others, should be considering how to encourage kindness because incentives to engage in beneficial economic activities are likely to be greater in societies in which people are kinder. That proposition is not new. It is more usually stated in terms of the importance of trustworthiness in reducing transactions costs, including costs of contract enforcement and protection of persons and property. It seems reasonable to assume that kind people are generally more trustworthy than unkind people.

Are western societies becoming less kind? The answer seems to me to depend on the time frame considered. There seems to have been a secular trend toward greater kindness and less violence in western societies, as Steven Pinker has argued (see an earlier post for relevant comments). Over recent decades, however, there does seem to be increased incivility in many aspects of life including politics and workplaces.
Incivility in politics was very obvious in Australia last week, but I want to focus here on evidence of widespread and increasing incivility in workplaces. In 2011, about half of the workers included in a large US and Canadian study (by Christine Porath and Christine Pearson) claimed to have been treated rudely at work in the past week, whereas in 1998 only a quarter made that claim. Claims have been made that a similar epidemic of incivility is also occurring in Australian workplaces.

I doubt whether the incidence of incivility has actually doubled. It is possible that many people have become more sensitive to criticism of their performance and perhaps more prone to interpret constructive criticism as incivility.

Nevertheless, Porath and Pearson provide impressive evidence that incivility in workplaces is not a trivial matter. Those affected claim that it causes them to reduce their work effort. Managers spend a lot of time dealing with the aftermath of incivility. And customers are turned away when they witness disrespectful behaviour among employees.

Perhaps the most obvious way to reduce incivility is by making rules that will discourage offending behaviours. I suspect, however, that a plethora of rules is an ineffectual way to encourage kindness. The apparent increase in incivility has occurred at a time of increased regulation to prevent extreme acts of incivility (e.g. discrimination on grounds of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, disability). Workplace bullying could be expected to thrive in environments where staff are unable to achieve expected outcomes without breaching rules of conduct intended to prevent incivility.

Most of the recommendations made by Porath and Pearson to reduce incivility do seem likely to encourage more kindly behaviour in workplaces. They suggest, among other things, that leaders should look to their own behaviour, take more account of civility in hiring staff and reward good behaviour. Interestingly, such remedies would seem fairly obvious to any business leaders concerned to promote the interests of shareholders. Incivility in workplaces will presumably become less of a problem as business leaders become more aware of its effects on the bottom line.

More generally, it seems to me that the best way to encourage kindness is to make people more aware that kindness is good for those who practice it.  

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