When Robin Banerjee, head of the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex, went back through scientific journals from the 1980s, he found just 35 articles on kindness. “We realised that kindness as a topic has not received that much attention in terms of the academic literature,” he says.
“So we embarked on designing this Kindness Test to really shine a light on kindness, because we feel it’s likely to be all around us, but we don’t really know just how much people are experiencing it,” he adds.
A lot, it turns out. Three-quarters of respondents said their close friends or family displayed acts of kindness towards them either “quite often” or “nearly all the time”, while 43 per cent said someone had been kind to them within the last day.
The types of kindness people received were not always extraordinary acts of generosity or self-sacrifice. Sometimes it was something as simple as bringing them a cup of tea.
“What you might call ‘common courtesy’, what you might call ‘being polite’, if it’s motivated by care for another’s welfare – even if it’s a tiny thing, like holding the door for someone, or smiling at someone – that is kindness,” says Banerjee. “Those little moments add up.”
That might explain why two-thirds of the test respondents said that the pandemic had made people kinder. It may have been the small things: shopping for one another, clapping for carers, checking in on lonely people, that made such a difference.
While overall the study found that people felt the levels of kindness they’d experienced in their lifetime had either remained the same (39 per cent) or decreased (36 per cent), the pandemic seemed to disrupt that pattern.
“It was very striking,” says Banerjee. “It really made me think about the social context of all of this. We all have a role to play in kindness. This isn’t just about individuals doing their thing, it’s also about us coming together as a collective.”
Interestingly, despite 70 per cent of people in the UK feeling that COVID had made people kinder, the figure in the US was around half that, only 36 per cent. More Americans thought the pandemic had actively made people less kind.
“That to me was an eye-opener,” says Banerjee, “because that’s a huge difference.” Despite a smaller sample size in the US, a significant number of people thought this way.
If You See An Opportunity To Be Kind, Just Go For It
“It made me really reflect on what kind of a world we have created,” adds Banerjee, who has also founded the Sussex Centre for Research on Kindness. “When do we come together? When don’t we come together? And what are the impacts of that?”
The study found that kindness was seen to be valued in the workplace and in every profession. However, the number one barrier for displaying kindness (65.9 per cent), particularly in the UK, was the worry that the act would be misinterpreted.
“This was a very dominant theme,” says Banerjee. “But our evidence is suggesting that that’s not really well-founded … we’d be much better off if we didn’t overthink the situation. If we see an opportunity to be kind and to help someone else out … just go for it.”
And perhaps that’s the most significant conclusion to be drawn from The Kindness Test: it’s easy to be drawn to the horrors of the world and consumed by images of negativity in the media and online, but actually kindness is all around us – and people need more of it.