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4 Reasons People Hesitate to Be Kind or Helpful

2. We worry we'll be bad at it.

Key points

  • People underestimate the benefits of saying kind words to others.
  • People project their own knowledge onto others, thereby wrongly assuming their advice might be obvious to others.
  • Young people may feel it is socially inappropriate to offer input to someone who is older.
  • Kind words land badly only when they are dishonest or expedient. In all other scenarios: Say it!

When was the last time you said something nice to someone else?

And when was the last time somebody said something nice to you?

In everyday life, there are countless opportunities to say something that improves the life of another person. For example, we can give feedback on a job another person has done, give them advice on how to improve their performance, give them a heartfelt compliment, or express our gratitude for something they have done for us.

However, many people often let these opportunities pass by without saying something nice or helpful to other people. A new research paper by researcher Jennifer E. Abel from Harvard Business School and team entitled “Kindness in Short Supply: Evidence for Inadequate Prosocial Input” now focused on the reasons why people decide not to say something nice or helpful to other people even if the situations permits it (Abel et al., 2022).

The researchers first review evidence for a lack of helpful feedback or advice in everyday life. For example, one study showed that 72 percent of employees report that their managers do not provide them with enough feedback. In another study on people in relationships, only 48 percent wanted to give their partner feedback, but 86 percent wanted to receive feedback. Further studies show that people often withhold compliments or expressions of gratitude.

So why are people so reluctant to say something nice or helpful to others?

The researchers suggest that in general, people tend to underestimate the benefits and overestimate the costs of giving compliments, feedback, advice, or statements of gratitude to others. Underestimating the benefits could mean something like thinking that one’s feedback may not be particularly helpful or that a compliment may not really make the other person happy.

Overestimating the costs could mean that people are afraid that praise may be unwanted or awkward or that well-meant advice could be perceived as arrogant. Moreover, feedback could be perceived as overly critical, even if it is indeed helpful to improve future performance.

Based on an analysis of the scientific literature, Abel and co-workers identified 4 reasons for wrongful assumptions about saying something nice or helpful to other people.

  1. We tend to project our own thoughts about something onto other people. This may result in the feeling that advice or feedback may not be helpful, since its content is already obvious to the other person. So, if someone is an expert in cooking, they may wrongfully assume that the other person may also know a lot about how to cook. Thus people tend to overestimate the obviousness of their advice and then not give any advice at all.
  2. We tend to focus on the wrong aspects of giving feedback or advice. Research shows that people who give advice or feedback often worry about whether they do so in a technically competent way. However, people who receive advice often care more about the emotional warmth and good intentions of the person that gives advice than about their technical competence.
  3. One’s own preferences about getting feedback or advice may stand in the way. If somebody feels like they are uncomfortable receiving critical (but helpful) advice they may automatically make others feel the same and then remain silent.
  4. People may feel it is socially inappropriate for them to give feedback or a compliment. For example, a younger person may assume that older adults may not be happy to receive advice from them. However, the person receiving the advice may be happy if it is helpful, no matter the age of the person giving it.

Combined, these four factors lead to the issue that people remain silent even in situations where the other person may highly appreciate their input and their relationship would benefit from it. The findings of the research paper thus suggest that when in doubt about saying something kind to somebody else: Do it!

The researchers mention that the only situations where kind words may make a negative impression on the other person are if they are dishonest or given with selfish intent. Thus, as long as it is done in an honest and emotionally warm way, giving feedback, offering advice, or expressing thanks and gratitude usually is a very good idea.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: fizkes/Shutterstock


Jennifer E. Abel, Preeti Vani, Nicole Abi-Esber, Hayley Blunden, Juliana Schroeder (2022). Kindness in Short Supply: Evidence for Inadequate Prosocial Input. Current Opinion in Psychology, 101458.