According to Harry Reis, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, to be a homo sapiens is also to be predisposed towards kindness.
Unfortunately, I read about this study right after I had read about how gangs of young black men have recently been attacking middle aged cyclists on a bike trail near my home, beating them up and then stealing their bikes.
So I suppose I might be forgiven for wanting to take Reis’s statement with a few (hundred) grains of salt.
The initial goal of the Rochester research study was to test out a theory put forth by none other than the Dalai Lama himself:
Showing compassionate concern for others’ welfare enhances one’s own affective state.
To do this, Reis and colleagues assembled 175 newlywed couples and asked them to track “random acts of kindness” given and received for two weeks. The participants were also asked to note whether their acts of giving were noticed by their spouse or not.
As it turned out, when the partners reported back in, they said they felt just as happy when their acts of giving were noticed and when they weren’t noticed. This is the part that led the researchers to conclude we are (as Reis stated) “wired to give.”
The researchers pointed to the evolutionary advantage of giving when you are a group-based (cooperative) species, saying it makes sense we have become wired to cooperate – give – in order to ensure the wellbeing of our group and our place within that group.
But then what is going wrong with our neighborhood’s local bike gang thieves?
Are they evolutionarily flawed? Do they no longer identify as homo sapiens? Are they just drug addicts (a theory a few neighbors have posited) who are driven by their habit to turn a quick profit by reselling stolen bikes through pawn shops?
Or have they perhaps reframed their “group” and the acts of (ahem) “kindness” they may perform to only that which may benefit the shared aims of their group, which is to acquire items with resale value that can increase the group’s kitty?
But then, why are they beating up the riders too? What benefit could that possibly have to anyone?
I will confess I don’t know. Every since hurricane Harvey, it feels like for every story about horrid looting or theft or violence, there is an equal and opposite story about truly random acts of kindness to keep me from just completely giving up on our species.
Here is one story about the latter:
About two weeks after my folks were flooded out of their home and had to move into a hotel, they were out eating dinner at a local Italian restaurant. After working hard all day, they were exhausted and so hungry. They were seated outside so their anxious dachshund, Flash Gordon, could come along. A lady showed up, went in, picked up take-out, came out and started chatting with them.
The lady asked if they were flood victims and my parents shared their story. Then the lady said goodbye and left. A few minutes after that, the waiter came out and told my folks their meal had been paid for and they had a $30 gift card to come back and eat again anytime they liked. It was from the lady they had talked to – someone they had never met before!
Now if that story doesn’t make a homo sapiens’ heart just sing, I don’t know what could! When my mom told me about their experience, it felt – for just a moment – like all was truly alright with the world.
But it isn’t. The reports of local violence have increased day after day. I wonder if perhaps no one has told the thieves that offering kindness feels better than kicking the crap out of someone and then taking their two-wheeled ride.
Or maybe we just haven’t yet put a suitably valuable price tag on kindness….one sufficiently alluring to convince the thieves it gives a better high and still costs less than whatever substance the stolen bikes are supposed to procure for them.
Today’s Takeaway: Is that the key to ending or at least reducing crime and violence towards each other? Do we just need to put a price tag on happiness, giving, joy? Interestingly, the same research team is now starting to study whether spending money on others makes the spender feel better, emotionally speaking. All I know is that I would feel emotionally better if I read fewer crime reports.