Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Why We Underestimate Our Effect on Others

Small acts of kindness have a much bigger impact than we think.

Key points

  • Kindness can play a significant role in a person’s well-being.
  • Our inner critic makes us second-guess our actions and underestimate the beneficial effect we can have on others.
  • If how we feel about ourselves isn’t so great, we may project that feeling onto others and hold ourselves back.

It won’t sound like a big revelation when I tell you that kindness plays an enormous role in a person’s well-being. It can lead to changes like higher self-esteem and lower blood pressure. Kind people tend to be healthier and live longer. It’s one the most significant predictors of satisfaction and stability in a marriage. Even just witnessing acts of kindness can make us happier.

Yet, new research shows that people may not truly know the impact that even the smallest of kind acts can have on another person. “From giving away a cup of hot chocolate in a park to giving away a gift in the lab, those performing a random act of kindness consistently underestimated how positive their recipients would feel, thinking their act was of less value than recipients perceived it to be,” states the study, which was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology earlier this year.

Source: Cottonbro/Pexels

This miscalculation suggests that people devalue their own actions in relation to others and may miss out on all kinds of incidental opportunities to have a positive effect on one another. Yet, why is there this disparity between what we think someone will feel from an act of kindness versus what they do feel? Why do we underestimate the impact we have on others?

Our Inner Critic

Many of us don’t have a real sense of our value. It’s been estimated that as many as 85 percent of people struggle with low self-esteem. We all carry around a “critical inner voice” that tends to put us down. This “voice” tends to shift our focus inward, insulting us, assessing our every move, and interfering with our relationships.

Unlike a conscience, this inner critic doesn’t motivate positive or prosocial behavior. Instead, it turns us against ourselves, making us second guess our actions and underestimate our beneficial effect on others. It encourages us to hold back, feeding us thoughts like, “Don’t stick your neck out”; “No one wants to hear from you"; and “You’re going to make a fool of yourself.”

Even when it’s not directly advising us to keep to ourselves, our inner critic can blind us to our effect on others simply by keeping our lens focused inward. It’s hard to have any sense of what we can offer when we’re consumed with second-guessing ourselves. When we devalue ourselves, we devalue anything that comes from us: our opinions, our behavior, and even our compliments.

What Our Assumptions Tell Us

As one study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found, people are reluctant to give as many compliments to others as they’d like to, in large part because they underestimate the positive impact their comments would have on recipients. In addition, they tended to overestimate the awkwardness recipients would feel at being complimented.

It may seem like a small thing, but the implications of this study are not only that people may diminish the value of their own kind or acknowledging comments but also that they assume others will feel discomfort around being complimented. Our assumptions about what others will feel from our outward expressions of kindness may, in part, be based on how we feel about ourselves. If how we feel about ourselves isn’t so great, we may project that feeling onto others and hold ourselves back.

This doesn’t necessarily mean we’re not generous or kind. People with low self-esteem can be extremely thoughtful and giving of themselves. Yet, given the results of recent studies, it’s interesting to ask ourselves what’s keeping us from seeing how we affect people in a positive and realistic light. To what degree might we be stopping ourselves from engaging in acts of kindness, not just the small gestures we extend to near strangers but also the larger expressions of warmth and affection that we could be extending to those close to us?

I can’t tell you how many friends and people I’ve worked with who have confided in me about ways their inner critic has held them back from expressing their fond, kind, and generous feelings. Their self-attacks range from “your words mean nothing” to “that person doesn’t want a hug from you” to “don’t show them how you feel; they’ll think you want something from them.” It’s surprising to think about how often we talk ourselves out of doing things that make us feel good, even when those things directly reward another person. Instead of seeing what we have to offer, we may think of ourselves as a burden or an intrusion.

Countering That Inner Voice

One wonderful way to counter our critical inner voice is through altruism or concrete acts of being kind to others. However, the work doesn’t stop there. We must also be willing to rethink the distorted lens through which we perceive ourselves and often assume others see us. We have to challenge our critical inner voice and try instead to see ourselves through the eyes of the people we affect. The degree to which we’re able to do that will help determine our own happiness along with the happiness we ignite in others.

More from Lisa Firestone Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today