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Good at heart? 10 psychology findings that reveal the better side of humanity

Last year we published a list of ten psychology findings that reveal the worst of human nature. Research has shown us to be dogmatic and over-confident, we wrote, with a tendency to look down on minorities and assume that the downtrodden deserve their fate. Even young children take pleasure in the suffering of others, we pointed out.

But that’s only half of the story. Every day, people around the world fight against injustices, dedicate time and resources to helping those less fortunate than them, or just perform simple acts of kindness that brighten the lives of those around them. And psychology has as much to say about this brighter side of humanity as it does the darker one. So here we explore some of the research that demonstrates just how kind and compassionate we can be.

Kids as young as two are surprisingly selfless…

We tend to think of toddlers as selfish creatures — but it seems that even very young children are more prosocial than we give them credit for. In one study, pairs of two-year-olds were given a set of marbles that made a nice sound when put into a box. Children this age are not exactly renowned for sharing — yet the team found that about half the time, the kids divided up the marbles fairly. Only in 19% of trials did one child selfishly take all of the toys for themselves. In a variation of the study, one of the pair started out with three marbles, while the other received just one. Even in this case, the luckier child willingly gave one of their marbles to the less fortunate kid in about a third of trials. And toddlers even seem to enjoy helping others. Two-year-olds show positive body language and emotions after doing a task which benefits someone else — in fact, helping others seems just as rewarding to the children as helping themselves.

..and some theories suggest that we are all, in fact, altruistic by nature

It’s not just toddlers: we’re all predisposed to help others, according to some researchers. Even in the presence of strangers who we may never see again, we regularly act for the benefit of the group and punish those who don’t, even if it comes at a personal expense — a behaviour sometimes called “strong reciprocity”. This could explain why people often co-operate rather than act selfishly in the kinds of tasks psychologists use to study economic behaviour — and why people will even forgo some of their winnings to punish those who act unfairly. It could even account for the fact that we love to queue (and shout at those who skip the line).

Our personalities have “light” dimensions — they just haven’t been studied as much as the dark ones

Thousands of papers have been published on the so-called “Dark Triad” of traits: narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism, all associated with undesirable behaviours like manipulation, egotism and callousness. But this focus on the undesirable side of our personalities “misrepresents the full capacities of humanity,” according to Scott Barry Kaufmann and colleagues. Earlier this year, the team published a new scale to measure what they call the “Light Triad”, made up of humanism, “Kantianism” (treating people not as a means to an end, but as an end itself), and faith in humanity. The work was exploratory and it’s still early days, but the team found that high scores on the Light Triad traits were associated with a greater quality of life — and overall, people generally scored higher on the Light Triad than the Dark Triad.

When it comes to the environment, children have a profound sense of right and wrong

That’s according to a 2011 study in which children were presented various scenarios in which a person displayed bad manners, performed some moral transgression like stealing, or made an environmentally harmful action, like damaging a tree. The kids rated harm to the environment as worse than bad manners, and they overwhelmingly gave “biocentric” rather than “anthropocentric” explanations for their ratings: they believed that the environment per se is worthy of respect, not just because it provides sustenance to humans.  Of course, this finding will probably come as no surprise to most of us eight years later, where children are leading a global movement to demand action against climate change.

We place more value on someone else’s physical suffering than our own

We all know about Stanley Milgram’s experiments, in which participants were convinced by an authority figure to administer electric shocks to another person. But not only has the classic interpretation of these studies been questioned — other work has also found that we’re really not that keen for another person to experience physical suffering. In a 2014 study, researchers gave participants cash rewards for electric shocks, with the opportunity to increase the intensity of the shock for extra money. The twist? Sometimes the participants themselves received the shock, but in other cases a stranger in another room was the victim. Surprisingly, the team found that people were much more willing to give themselves a larger shock for extra money: they needed twice the cash incentive to raise the pain level for the stranger.

“Paying it forward” is a real thing

Yes, it sounds just like the plot of an overly-sentimental, early-2000s film, but it turns out that when we are nice to people, they really do pass on the goodwill to others. Researchers asked a small group of employees to perform simple acts of kindness to their co-workers for four weeks. By the end of the study period, levels of morale and happiness increased amongst those who had been on the receiving end of those acts. But, importantly, these receivers also reported that they themselves had begun engaging in more positive behaviours towards others.  “Our study suggests that although everyday prosocial acts may be small, they are not insignificant,” the researchers conclude. “The benefits of prosociality do multiply, favoring not only those who give but also those who receive and observe.”

One of our guiltiest pleasures may be motivated by feelings of empathy and compassion

The rise of reality TV might seem like a sure sign of the worst excesses of humanity. The fact that we will spend our free time watching strangers’ relationships fall apart or people having their dreams crushed in front of an audience of millions doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in our species. And yet, according to a 2016 study, our drive to watch reality TV might have altogether more positive origins. Researchers gauged participants’ opinions on reality shows like Big Brother and MasterChef, and asked how much they would like to participate in these shows and what they’d think if a family member wanted to take part. The more that people enjoyed watching the shows, the happier they said they’d be for themselves or a loved one to participate. The authors say that the findings suggest people watch reality TV because they empathise with the contestants, not because they like to see people being humiliated — otherwise they would surely be against their loved ones taking part. Perhaps that conclusion should be taken with a pinch of salt, but at the very least the research does imply that our motivations may not always be as unpleasant as we instinctively believe.

Although we think we’re more selfish when we’re hungry, we’re actually not

Everyone can relate to the feeling of being “hangry”. But it turns out that even when we haven’t eaten in a while, we actually remain pretty helpful and co-operative towards others. That’s according to a 2019 paper which found that hungry people were just as likely as those who had recently eaten to contribute money to a shared pot, or agree to participate in a future study. Yet people expected others — and even themselves — to be less co-operative when hungry. The authors say that’s due to the “myth of self-interest”: the mistaken belief that we are all inherently selfish. And while a 2011 study famously found that judges make fewer favourable rulings as they get increasingly hungry, that finding has also since been debunked.

Those of us who have suffered the most show the greatest compassion towards others

Experiencing trauma can be devastating and have a range of negative repercussions. But people who have had more adverse experiences also tend to be more empathetic, according to research from Daniel Lim and David DeStono. The pair has found that those who have been through a greater number of negative experiences like disasters, bereavements and injuries display more empathy and are more willing to give to charity. That seems to be because they have a stronger belief in their ability to make a difference to others who are suffering. This isn’t to say that adversity is a positive thing — but it does suggest that out of the darkness, something good can sometimes emerge.

Finally, many “classic” studies that seem to reveal the worst of human nature have been challenged

There are a handful of classic social psychology findings that every student learns about — and which, more often than not, tell us something awful about the human condition. But the textbook account of these studies doesn’t always stand up to scrutiny. Take the Stanford Prison Experiment, in which volunteers assigned to the role of prison guards began to abuse those in the role of prisoners. Recently, psychologists have challenged this traditional account: one analysis of recordings from the experiment suggests that the researchers took a much more active role in encouraging the guards to behave in a tough way than they originally claimed, undermining the gloomy conclusion normally drawn from that study. Another example is the bystander effect, which most textbooks will illustrate using the case of Kitty Genovese — except the description of that horrific case that most of us have read is not exactly correct. So while the bystander effect is undoubtedly real, and although there are plenty of terrible examples throughout history of people using their position of authority to cause harm, it’s also clear that human nature is far more nuanced than we learn about in PSYC101.

BPS Research Digest, Written By Matthew Warren