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Friday, January 14, 2022

A Little Good Goes an Unexpectedly Long Way: Underestimating the Positive Impact of Kindness on Recipients

Kumar, A., & Epley, N. 
(2021, November 15). 


Performing random acts of kindness increases happiness in both givers and receivers, but we find that givers systematically undervalue their positive impact on recipients. In both field and laboratory settings (Experiments 1a-2b), those performing a random act of kindness predicted how positive recipients would feel and recipients reported how they actually felt. 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. Givers’ miscalibrated expectations are driven partly by an egocentric bias in evaluations of the act itself (Experiment 3). Whereas recipients’ positive reactions are enhanced by the warmth conveyed in a kind act, givers’ expectations are relatively insensitive to the warmth conveyed in their action. Underestimating the positive impact of a random act of kindness also leads givers to underestimate the behavioral consequences their prosociality will produce in recipients through indirect reciprocity (Experiment 4). We suggest that givers’ miscalibrated expectations matter because they can create a barrier to engaging in prosocial actions more often in everyday life (Experiments 5a-5b), to the detriment of people’s own wellbeing, to others’ wellbeing, and to civil society.

General Discussion

Prosocial actions, such as performing random acts of kindness, tend to improve wellbeing for both those who perform prosocial acts as well as for those who receive them.  Indeed, those who performed a random act of kindness in our experiments reported feeling significantly more positive than they normally do, and two of the experiments confirmed that performers felt better than participants who were not given the opportunity to perform a random act of kindness. Another found that performers of acts of kindness felt more positive after being kind than they reported feeling at the beginning of the experiment.Being more prosocial did not come at a cost to people’s own wellbeing; it enhanced it.  Daily life, however, affords many opportunities for engaging in these sorts of prosocial activities that people do not seem to take.  We believe our research suggests one possible reason why: that those performing random acts of kindness undervalue the positive impact they are having on recipients.  People’s choices are often guided by either an implicit or explicit calculation of expected value (Becker, 1993).  Underestimating how positive a recipient would feel after even a small act of kindness could lead people to engage in prosocial actions less often than might be optimal for both their own and others’ wellbeing.

Across many different actions, with many different participants, and in many different contexts, performers systematically perceived their random act of kindness to be a more minor action than recipients perceived it to be, and also systematically underestimated how positive recipients would feel afterwards.Performers were not confused, of course, that recipients would feel good about their experience.  In all cases performers expected recipients to feel more positive than they normally do.  Nevertheless, performers were still systematically miscalibrated as recipients felt even better than expected.