Never Underestimate Small Acts Of Kindness

Never Underestimate Small Acts Of Kindness

October 20, 2022

Sometimes it is the smallest things that mean the most, and yet most of us underestimate the power of reaching out to an old friend or giving away a cup of hot chocolate in a park.

Interesting new studies performed by Amit Kumar and Nicholas Epley out of the UT Austin and the University of Chicago explore how a little good goes an unexpectedly long way. What can we learn from these studies and how can we make the most positive impact on the people we interact with and beyond?

Read on to be inspired to become the 'small act of kindness fairy.' 😊

In the first study, researchers in Chicago gave people the opportunity to give away a cup of hot chocolate from a park kiosk to strangers and were asked to rank how this small gift would impact the moods of the recipient. On a scale of -5 to 5 (with -5 meaning much more negative than normal and 5 meaning much more positive than normal), the givers of the hot chocolate anticipated the recipients' moods might average at a 2.7.

The receivers of this unexpected warm drink reported themselves at a 3.5.4 The difference isn't extreme, but it does suggest that performers of this small act of kindness underestimated the significance of their act. And if your expectations are lower, it may even act as a barrier to engaging in prosocial actions more often in everyday life.

What researcher Amit Kumar found is that the performer of a small act of kindness will focus on the object or action they are providing to the recipient, and they fail to take into account the additional feelings of warmth the gesture itself will also conjure up. "Performers are not fully taking into account that their warm acts provide value from the act itself,” Kumar said. “The fact that you’re being nice to others adds a lot of value beyond whatever the thing is."1

These results alone should be an encouraging reminder that even things you may deem of little value can brighten a person's day well beyond your expectations. And it doesn't necessarily have to stop there!

In another study performed by Kumar and Epley in the lab, participants were either given a gift card from the lab, or they were gifted one by another participant. All recipients were asked to decide how they would like to divvy up their $100 gift between themselves and another unknown study participant. They found that participants who received the gift card through another participant's random act of kindness demonstrated more generosity. They tended to divide the $100 more evenly, giving away $48 on average in comparison to the control group at $41.1 

Beyond the unexpected positive boost of warmth you can provide to another person through a small gift, Kumar concluded, "As it turns out generosity can actually be contagious." After a person is treated kindly, they are more likely to pay it forward and spread kindness. 

And finally, in case we haven't convinced you, here is one more nugget of research that might help you step out of your comfort zone and connect with an old friend. In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, participants were directed to check in with others in small ways (via a text, email, or short phone call), and then asked both sides of the interaction to rate how meaningful it was. Unsurprisingly, the person doing the reaching out underestimated how much the interaction meant to the recipient. They also found that the more surprising or unexpected the check-in was, the more impact it had on the recipient. Those people you haven't spoken to in a while or with whom you are not as close to might be the ones who are most grateful to hear from you!2

Footnotes and Sources

1., August 8, 2022

2., July 19, 2022