Kindness undervalued: insights into the social psychology of our society
1 Introduction: The role of kindness in modern society
Kindness is often taken for granted as a virtue in society, but its importance is often underestimated. Yet, this concept, characterized by gestures of care and compassion, plays a central role in our social interactions and in building relationships.
At a time when neoliberal ideologies and social Darwinist principles increasingly characterize the social climate, the importance of kindness is frequently underestimated. This phenomenon, not only in interpersonal relationships but also in the design of our public spaces, sheds light on how the undervaluation of kindness can be understood as a symptom of a deeper emotional coldness and efficiency-orientation that affects individual and collective well-being.
Despite its obvious importance, both children and adults tend to underestimate the true value and influence of acts of kindness, as a recent study points out. This underestimation of kindness has far-reaching implications for psychological development and interpersonal behaviour, especially in the formative years of childhood.
In the cited study, kindness is defined as behaviour aimed at the well-being of others, typically through caring, helping and empathetic acts. These acts can come in various forms, such as gifts or simple gestures of affection and support. The focus is on the intention to have a positive impact on the lives of others and to promote their well-being.
The study, which is presented on the British Psychological Society (BPS) website (Undervaluing Kindness Starts Early), sheds light on how children and adults regularly underestimate the value of kindness. Their findings are particularly relevant to child development and psychological wellbeing, as they show that there is a tendency to underestimate the importance of kind gestures from a young age. This understanding of kindness and its influence on social relationships in childhood can have far-reaching implications for emotional and social development.
- Overview of the BPS study on the appreciation of kindness:
In the study by Margaret Echelbarger and Nicholas Epley, participants of various ages, including children from the age of four, were asked to rate the value of kind gestures such as gifts. The methodology involved experiments in which participants expressed their expectations about the reactions of the recipients of their kindnesses.
A key finding was that both children and adults systematically underestimated the positive impact of their acts of kindness, indicating a general tendency to misjudge the value of kindness in social interactions.
The study shows how the appreciation of kindness begins in childhood and is undervalued from the outset in a society influenced by neoliberalism and social Darwinism. This undervaluing reflects a societal tendency to value competition and self-optimisation over interpersonal warmth and caring. This section establishes the link between the findings of the study and wider societal trends, and emphasizes the importance of considering these findings in the context of an increasingly competitive and efficient world.
The underestimation of kindness in an increasingly neoliberal society can be considered a reflection and reinforcement of neoliberal values. Neoliberalism emphasizes individual responsibility for success and competition, to the neglect of social values such as compassion and cooperation. Its “econs” despise kindness because it hinders success. Self-centredness and a weakening of the sense of community are evident everywhere.
These findings also make it clear that it is essential to re-evaluate and promote the appreciation of kindness in today’s society to enable a more balanced, more humane coexistence.
For more information on the study, please visit the BPS website: [Undervaluing Kindness Starts Early](https://www.bps.org.uk/research-digest/undervaluing-kindness-starts-early).
- Hostile architecture: a repulsive example of a lack of kindness and social coldness
Hostile architecture (or defensive architecture) is a striking example of how the underestimation of kindness is manifested in a society characterised by neoliberalism. This type of architecture includes design elements in public spaces that prevent homeless people from sitting or sleeping in certain areas of public space. Those responsible for such measures regularly claim to prioritize aesthetics and “order”, or — even more perfidiously — care for people with physical disabilities. In reality, this is based on blatant social coldness and contempt for compassion and care. The increasing alienation between different social groups is encouraged and the gap in society is widened. This not only has an impact on individual well-being, but also fragments society and destroys its co-operative nature. Neoliberalism’s slogan is: every man for himself.
If you think this doesn’t affect you because the homeless are to blame for their own failure: this unfriendly design of public space There are also studies that show that certain design elements in public spaces, such as uncomfortable seating elements, are aimed at influencing consumer behaviour. These elements are designed to prevent people from lingering for long periods of time, with the aim of directing them to restaurants and shops. This reflects a commercial prioritization and a neglect of people’s needs and comfort, which in turn reflects the increasing focus on profit and efficiency in a neoliberal society.
Design elements that aim to discourage undesirable behaviour — such as pointed surfaces that make it difficult to sit on public benches — reveal how, in a society shaped by neoliberalism, space, and environment are increasingly dehumanized and reduced to pure functionality, even at the cost of social alienation and lack of empathy.
- Long-term psychological effects of a lack of kindness: from alienation to disruption
The long-term psychological effects of neoliberal coldness that despises kindness will be profound. Those who grow up in such an environment will develop difficulties in connecting emotionally and feeling empathy. The consequences are impaired relationships and an increased susceptibility to mental disorders.
However, lack of interpersonal warmth and empathy leads to social isolation and a sense of alienation, whether it is due to social causes (e.g. discrimination or difficulty fitting in socially), health reasons (such as depression or anxiety), or work-related factors (such as harmful working conditions or lack of fulfilment at work). This alienation goes hand in hand with a deep sense of hopelessness, increases the risk of developing depression, and causes overthinking – rumination — and anxiety. In addition, alienation damages self-esteem and self-perception and in turn makes it more difficult to build and maintain relationships, further increasing feelings of isolation and lack of social support.
- Conclusions: social justice, promotion of kindness and social values
It is essential to promote kindness and social values in a world characterized by competition and efficiency. The ideal way to achieve this would be social justice, from which we are so far removed that it would be nonsensical to make it an immediate demand. Until then, however, it remains essential for a healthy society to find a liveable balance between economic goals and human values. Here are concrete strategies for achieving this goal:
- Educational initiatives: Parents must set an example of kindness. Schools and educational institutions should introduce programmes that promote empathy, cooperation and social responsibility. This could be done through special courses, workshops or inclusive activities aimed at developing emotional intelligence.
- Community projects: Local initiatives can bring people from different backgrounds together. Such projects strengthen social ties and promote a sense of belonging and mutual support.
- Corporate responsibility: Companies must assume social responsibility — not only in branding documents — and integrate kindness and social values into their business models. This includes fair working conditions, support for local communities and sustainable business processes.
- Media and campaigns: Media play a crucial role in shaping public opinions and attitudes. The verbal division of society into those who are in our favour and those who are hated must finally come to an end. Campaigns that emphasize kindness and compassion must once again help to raise awareness and promote positive social norms.
- Policy measures: Governments will have no choice but to support the promotion of kindness and social values through legislation and policies. This could be through promoting inclusive education systems, supporting social programmes or creating public spaces that encourage interaction and community. Otherwise, they will end up in a dystopian society where privileged elites are forced to coop themselves up in fortress-like condominiums while the majority are left to fend for themselves outside.
Without kindness, a society cannot be created in which social values are not only appreciated, but actively lived in a more inclusive and empathetic world.