Emiliana Simon-Thomas,Science Director, Greater Good Science Center, UC Berkeley


Some argue that kindness, like sharing, offering help, or engaging in friendly banter is optional – something most of us learn from nice people in life and choose to show under certain, promising conditions.

A common corollary is the idea that self-interest is more basic, key to human evolutionary success, and even perhaps, the underlying cause of kindness. Several historic thinkers have fueled this view, from the inventor of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud’s impulsive ‘id’, philosopher and novelist Ayn Rand’s wholesale rejection of altruism, to philosopher Machiavelli’s celebration of unscrupulous exploitation – to name a few. Popular interpretation of Darwin’s writings on human evolution often frames ‘fitness’ as brute strength and ferociousness, which is taken as support for this less hopeful and obligatory view on kindness. There is, however, an alternate view that is garnering the lion’s share of evidence from rigorous science: Kindness lies at the core of humanity.

Today, a growing scientific literature, suggests that kindness is more fundamental than greed – as evidenced in behavior, the body and the brain. By revisiting Darwin’s ‘Survival of the fittest’ writings, one might alternatively note the naturalist’s pointed emphasis on sympathy, love and cooperation as the keys to human survival; unlike the solitary mantis, humans are an ultra-social species that require nurturance, trust and collectiveness.

In exploring evolved or innate traits researchers often look to our primate predecessors, or to babies – they not having had time to learn how and when to be kind. Decades of studies by Frans de Waal at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta document frequent, seemingly reflexive kindness amongst the colonies. Chimps spontaneously reconcile differences, console losers of squabbles, and co-operate to earn shared rewards. Likewise, developmental psychologists Warniken and Tomasello have chronicled many examples of toddlers helping, like holding open doors or retrieving dropped objects, with no adult prompting. In another approach, generosity researchers Aknin and Dunn measured the most exuberant smiles from children giving from their own earned supplies, compared to distributing from a provided cache. Primates and pre-verbal kids are naturally drawn to be kind.

In terms of the body, which we used to think was directed by ‘rest and digest’ and ‘fight or flee’ forces of the autonomic (involuntary) branch of the peripheral nervous system, several scientists have posited equally powerful systems dedicated to prosocial motives. Barbara Fredickson, emotion science expert and author of the book, Love 2.0, coined the phrase ‘tend and befriend’ to explain this shift.

Psychologist Stephen Porges posited the ‘Polyvagal’ theory, fueling a 15 year lineage of research on how the tenth cranial nerve, the vagus, is instrumental to promoting social affiliation, and in parallel, marked advantages to physical health and well being. And, from studies comparing different strains of voles (cousins of mice), biologists like Sue Carter discovered that Oxytocin, in addition to its below-the-neck role in uterine contractions and milk letdown, is also fundamental to the pursuit and formation of long-term, affectionate social bonds in humans. Our bodies, and according to a recent report in ‘Science’, even our pet canine’s bodies, signal trust, love and connection with Oxytocin.

At the level of the brain, several studies indisputably show that people find pleasure in kindness, perhaps even more than from self-serving behaviors. Parents, for starters, are fooled by hypothalamic pathways deep in the brain into adoring extraordinarily labor intensive care-giving for their vulnerable offspring. These pathways, it turns out, are re-purposed by our ever efficient brains towards friendships, romance and other benevolent relationships over our lifespan. Next, looking at the ‘dopamine reward circuits’ conventionally linked to sensory pleasure, money, and even drugs of abuse, neuroimaging studies consistently report dopaminergic activity during acts of kindness such as lending support, charitable giving, or extending compassion towards suffering. The same neural systems that drive pleasure in the traditional hedonic sense readily signal joy during kindness.

Most recently, neuroscientists led by UCLA Psychiatry Professor Marco Iacoboni concluded that brains are wired for kindness, with regions devoted to tracking other people’s expressions (the insula, cortical midline and temporal parietal cortex) that automatically spur helping. This finding aligns with an earlier study from Rand, Greene and Nowak, which showed that faster, more intuitive decisions tend to be more generous. Interestingly both projects also suggest that taking extra time to think gets in the way of kindness – our more basic, rudimentary manner of being.

In sum, despite the drama and yes, inevitability of human conflict, science suggests that we are equipped and deeply driven to be kind – and the more we do it, the better off we may be.

To contact Emiliana: greater@berkeley.edu

For more information on the http://greatergood.berkeley.edu

Link to the GGSC MOOC on edX: The Science of Happiness.