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Are We Naturally Kind?

Research on social mindfulness offers novel insights.

Humans are capable of astonishing displays of altruism. People give their lives in battle, donate kidneys to strangers, and bequeath their life savings to charitable organizations. Psychologists have long sought to understand how and why people demonstrate such exceptional levels of selflessness. But as impressive as these displays are, they in fact make up only a small fraction of the good deeds people perform on a daily basis—quotidian gestures like holding a door for someone or paying someone a compliment, or even the readiness to celebrate as friends that we won a game of soccer together.

Along with some colleagues, Niels Van Doesum and I have developed a line of research devoted to understanding the considerate acts that undergird social life. It is called social mindfulness—the practice of being cognizant of others’ preferences and desires, and acting accordingly. Imagine being at a bar with a friend. The bartender informs you that they have two beers on tap, a lager and an IPA. Furthermore, only a single pint of the lager remains. Which beer would you select? If you select the lager, this will deprive your friend of the opportunity to make a choice between the beers. If you chose the IPA, your friend will still have the opportunity to choose.

According to our research, choosing the IPA may constitute an act of social mindfulness. It signifies that you may be aware of the other person’s preferences, and attempt to provide them more latitude in making their own decision. This is but one instance of how social mindfulness can come into play in daily life. Other instances include giving someone the opportunity to have the last bite of cake, letting someone have “dibs” on a seat in a car, or leaving space on your airplane armrest for a neighbor to share.

Research has found that people’s tendency to be socially mindful is associated with a number of important personality characteristics. For instance, people who are socially mindful are also higher in empathy, honesty, and agreeableness, as measured with standard self-report assessments. In addition, people who are instructed in an experimental context to “keep the other person’s best interest in mind” end up being significantly more socially mindful than those instructed to keep their own best interest in mind. And people tend to be more socially mindful of people from lower than higher social class.

Research on social mindfulness has revealed some additional interesting aspects of this phenomenon. For instance, people who are socially mindful are judged more favorably by others than those who are not. This suggests that we have a natural tendency to respect and appreciate those who keep other’s preferences in mind when making their own decisions. In addition, brain scans of people performing social mindfulness tasks have revealed other interesting aspects of this phenomenon. The scans showed that being less socially mindful correlated with more activity in prefrontal cortex regions in the brain involved with planning and deliberation.

This suggests that people may be intrinsically inclined to be socially mindful, and only through planning and deliberation do they become more self-interested. This insight fits with previous work by David Rand and his colleagues suggesting that people often engage in spontaneous forms of cooperation. It suggests that being socially mindful is the “default setting” for people and that acting in their own interest (or against another’s) takes more effort.

But what exactly do differences in social mindfulness tell us about helping that does involve costs? A recent study examined a host of variables, such as religiosity and political preferences, along with social mindfulness, to see which were most strongly linked to giving fundraising time to help victims of a natural disaster: the typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2013. Interestingly, relative to religiosity or political preferences, social mindfulness was much more strongly linked to whether and how much time people donated to support these victims. Thus, social mindfulness is measured as low-cost cooperation—doing small things for others, like not taking away that IPA so that another person still has something to choose. But such nice gestures may also tell us a great deal about how much we help victims of a disaster far away. It seems that those with a social mind are more strongly prepared, in terms of thought and action, for costly forms of helping.

Still, the news about social mindfulness is not always positive. One troubling insight regarding people’s tendency to be socially mindful relates to who they tend to be mindful toward: Researchers have found that people tend to be significantly more mindful of those with trustworthy-looking faces. Even more important, when bringing to mind an important outgroup member or somebody you do not like at all, people may deliberately take away options for the other person. For example, if professional players from a football club bring to mind a player from a rivalry football club, they tend to take away the unique item. Indeed, as I wrote in an earlier post, people may be naturally good, but groups are not.

Researchers have called this tendency, which is the converse of social mindfulness, “social hostility.” Apparently, people may be quite ready to become hostile when facing another person outside of their own tribe. This behavior is interesting because, while people may not be willing to demonstrate overt acts of aggression to out-group members, they may use more subtle acts of social hostility as a way of undermining the well-being of out-group members.

Overall, research on social mindfulness has made an important step in the understanding of how small gestures matter. Sometimes, as with members of outgroups, such gestures may undermine cooperation. But most of the time, at least in interactions between individuals rather than groups, small gestures promote trust and cooperation. They can be the start of a cooperative relationship or provide the critical reassurance of a trusting, cooperative relationship. These are critical insights, because presumably most of our behavior in our daily lives is not about big sacrifices, but about the small things we can do for one another.


Van Doesum, N. J., Van Lange, D. A. W., & Van Lange, P. A. M. (2013). Social mindfulness: Skill and will to navigate the social world. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 105, 86-103.

See also website on social mindfulness