Dan J. Tomasulo PhD., MFA, MAPP

The Healing Crowd

Are We Born to Be Kind? Group Dynamics and Wellbeing

Survival of the kindest?

Posted Jan 31, 2012

It seems empathy and altruism are part of our human instinct, which indicates we are born to be kind.  But are we?  This is an essential question to answer in approaching how to help groups flourish.  If we are born to be kind through our empathic and altruistic tendencies, then the effort in group dynamics is to remove the obstacles that inhibit wellbeing and promote flourishing.  If, on the other hand, kindness and the underlying empathy and altruism are learned, the approach toward facilitating prosocial group behavior is one of education and training rather than enhancing an innate trait.  This is the nature/nurture question as it applies to group dynamics.

Our innate ability for empathy, altruism and kindness is evidenced in the work of Decety, Michalska, and Akitsuki (2008).  They offer some convincing studies demonstrating that children who experience other people being hurt display increased hemodynamic activity in the brain, essentially the same neural circuits as if they had experienced the pain themselves.  But it was when children saw animations of a person being intentionally hurt that other areas of the brain, those involved with social interaction and moral reasoning were activated as well.

Along these same lines Bloom's work on moral cognition with his colleagues, Karen Wynn and Kiley Hamlin (Hamlin, Wynn & Bloom, 2007), shows that children have a preference for those who are helpful and do good. The research used a variety of one-act moral plays with "good guys" and "bad guys" interacting with various objects.  The infants witness these interactions and it influences how they behave toward these characters.  The researchers repeatedly found the infants prefer the "good guy" and are sensitive to the positive and negative nature of third-party interventions.

These studies suggest that our capacity for empathic awareness and altruism are built in:  We are born with a kind mind.  The work in group dynamics should be on removing obstacles to allow these features to manifest more fully.  But there is something equally as intriguing: just being part of a group can actually improve your wellbeing.

The study of positive experiences, such as associated with flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991) also need to be understood within group phenomena. New research (Walker, C. J., 2010) suggests that wellbeing actually may exist on a continuum. Walker found that when comparing solitary vs. co-active or interactive social flow the two social conditions were more enjoyable, with interactive social flow being the most pleasing.        

Interactive social flow is enhanced through social interdependence. This occurs when we are part of a collectively competent group where there is complementary participation and a surrender of the self to the group. People participating in this have surrendered the self and acquire a collective sense of purpose and meaning. Many of the indicators for social flow are similar to the well-known attributes experienced in solitary flow, but with some interesting additions. There is emotional communication throughout the group as members are participating -- an emotional broadcast and resonance within the group and external observers. Members feel joy, elation and enthusiasm throughout the group performance. Finally, rituals are put in place to institutionalize social flow. The participants want to find ways to make it happen again.  (In other words, doing things together is better than doing things alone).

Positive psychology has just scratched the surface of understanding the nature and behavior of prosocial groups.  The real question will be how many people and how many groups will it take to make a sustainable difference in the world's flourishing?  As Martin Seligman (2011) has called for we are looking to have 51% of the world flourishing by 2051. Margaret Mead, the cultural anthropologist, offers a view I agree with: "A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."



Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1991). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience: Steps toward enhancing the quality of life. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

Decety, J., Michalska, K. J., & Akitsuki, Y. (2008). Who caused the pain? an fMRI investigation of empathy and intentionality in children. Neuropsychologia, 46(11), 2607-2614.

 Hamlin, J. K., Wynn, K., & Bloom, P. (2007). Social evaluation by preverbal infants. Nature, 450(7169), 557-559.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and wellbeing. New York: Free Press.