Making Time: Can we teach kindness?

Two people holding hands

Would you give your seat to someone unable to stand or protect a stranger from attack? We may say we would, but we don't always. Is this human nature, or can we be taught to be kind?

Early one morning in March 1964, a young woman called Kitty Genovese returned home to her New York apartment and was attacked and killed by an armed assailant.

According to newspaper reports at the time, dozens of neighbours watched the murder take place just outside their windows - but no-one came to her aid.

Genovese's fate, they claimed, was symbolic of the cold and careless society we had come to inhabit, and painted a stark picture of social decay.

Although the precise details have since been called into question, the case has come to represent what social scientists call "the bystander effect", or the "volunteer's dilemma".

Kitty Genovese The murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964 sparked the idea of the "bystander effect"

When surrounded by other people, the theory suggests, we become less likely to intervene and help our fellow citizens.

Research being carried out in the US and the UK, however, is testing whether this type of behaviour is hardwired into our nature or can be modified through training.

The murder of Kitty Genovese

  • 28-year-old Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death on 13 March 1964 in New York
  • Initial reports indicated 38 people had heard or seen parts of the attack but none had intervened
  • A later version of accounts stated that witnesses had not been aware of the entire incident
  • It nevertheless prompted an investigation into what became known as the "bystander effect"

In a recent experiment, a team of scientists from Northeastern University in Boston advertised a meditation class and recruited a set of volunteers. Half of the respondents went along to the sessions, while the other half were told that they were on a waiting list instead.

For those who attended, the course involved different forms of compassion meditation which has its roots in Tibetan Buddhism. In essence, the classes were designed to encourage people to pick up on shared characteristics rather than their differences, says social psychology professor David DeSteno, who helped carry out the research.

Once the classes were complete, all of the respondents - including those still on the waiting list - were subject to a real-world test that they were unaware was taking place.

One by one, they were called to attend a meeting. Before it began, they entered a waiting room with three chairs. Two were occupied by actors, leading the participant to sit down at the third.

Chair test A posed photograph of the compassion test conducted by David DeSteno's team

"After a couple of minutes, a woman would walk in on crutches - wincing with pain - and lean against the wall. The actors looked away and didn't give up their chairs," says DeSteno.

Of those who had received the compassion training, around half stood up to offer their chair to the woman, and for those who had not, the figure was just 15%.

They concluded that our willingness to help strangers is flexible, and can be shaped by small changes in perception.

"The underlying argument in all of this is that if we can get people to see similarities instead of differences, their willingness to help will increase," he says.

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In northern California, another group of researchers has turned to virtual reality to investigate what causes us to help other people.

"A lot of the work we do asks the question 'If I give someone a very intense virtual experience, how does it affect their behaviour in the real world?'" says Jeremy Bailenson, a professor at Stanford University's human interaction laboratory.

The team devised a "Superman" test in which subjects donned virtual reality goggles and were dropped into an evacuated city.

Some were told that they had superhuman powers, and had to deliver a shot of insulin to a diabetic child stranded somewhere nearby. "You lift your arms above your head to fly, and rotate your body to go in another direction - just like Superman in the movies," says Bailenson.

Other participants were taken on a tourists' helicopter ride around the city instead.

Once the child had been found, or the helicopter ride was complete, the participants sat through an interview that they were not told was part of the experiment. Halfway through the meeting, the researcher would knock over a pot of stationery on a desk.

Virtual reality exercise The 'Superman' virtual reality test conducted by Jeremy Bailenson and his team

Interviewees who had been given superhuman powers in the virtual world rushed to help clean up the mess more often than those who had not - many of whom did nothing at all.

The findings suggest that the more empowered people feel, the greater their propensity to show kindness to others.

In the UK, another study has attempted to go one step further - by introducing the idea of aggression and violence into the equation.

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Mel Slater, professor of virtual environments at University College London, hoped to recreate the conditions for the "bystander effect" in a controlled setting.

Using another form of virtual reality, the participants - 40 fans of Arsenal football club - were each placed in a room in which the floor and most of the walls were made up of video screens.

The virtual environment was a pub, where the subjects were approached and befriended by a virtual customer at the bar.

In some instances the customer was a plain-clothed member of the public, but in others they were a fellow Arsenal fan who engaged in a discussion about the team's recent fortunes.

After a few minutes, a second virtual drinker would wander over and start abusing the participant's new acquaintance, verbally at first, and then physically as well.

"In both cases we recorded how many times the subject tried to intervene, both physically and with speech," says Slater.

Although they had only just met, the participant leapt to the aid of their fellow Arsenal fan far more often than they did for the plain-clothed stranger.

Graphic of altercation in a bar Virtual images of the University College of London bystander study

According to some researchers, the Kitty Genovese case suggested that the more people were watching, the less likely they were to intervene.

"It is more complicated than that," says Slater. "It's also about how much we identify with others."

The results of his team's work chime with that of DeSteno in Boston, which concluded that we look for "any marker of similarity" when taking decisions about who to help.

"All social living involves trade-offs between short-term and long-term gains. What we're interested in is how we can nudge the mind to look to the long-term," says DeSteno.

Does he think that Genovese could really have been saved had her neighbours been trained in compassion?

"We don't have that data, so we can't say for sure," he says. "But my hunch is yes, it would have likely increased their willingness to help."

There are more volunteering stories in the BBC News series Making Time

We asked you what, if anything, had caused you to be kinder to people around you. Here are a selection of your comments.

I started to become kinder to others after a relatively big accident, in which my ligament almost got severed right after I moved to another continent away from home for college. Through the accident I understood how tough it could be to be lonely and in pain without any helping hand being given. Moreover, I always feel indebted to those people's kindness back then, and hence believe that the best way to repay that debt is to do similar good deeds to others.

Lan Tran, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

After returning from Nicaragua on a foreign exchange, I have found myself a kinder, more aware person. On this trip my job was to be a catalyst for empowerment, and the more I worked with youth in the community to empower them, the more I felt empowered to create change in my own life. This is the key element to kindness, recognizing the power of the individual to create real change.

Elise Sommers, Minneapolis, US

Growing up I had a nice, comfortable, and in fact very privileged childhood. By my early 20's I had been to the depths of poverty and misery, and was beginning to get out, I had a home, family of my own, and considered myself very lucky. It was around this time I started to be kinder to others. I used to stop and give lifts or help to some of the older residents near me, I'd buy warm food or a cup of hot coffee for the homeless I saw at the station I went to for University, Give up my seat, just - little things. I can't pinpoint exactly when I changed, but it's become a realisation over years. Life is short, and it is only by the roll of the dice that I am not in someone else's shoes.

Rebecca, Basingstoke, UK

My mother fell from the bus while pregnant with me. There were bystanders, I was told. But no one helped her. That happened in Singapore in the 70s. I'm now a grown-up and living in the US. Moved to San Francisco about six months ago. There are homeless people and panhandlers. Once I saw an elderly woman panhandling. I gave her a dollar note and told her to get something to eat. I have recently committed to being an online micro-lender, too. It's my way of standing up for people who want to improve their lives, but no one to help them execute their plans.

Kim, California, US

Over the years I've learned to be less kind to others. Now I consider whether what looks like the obvious course of action has unintended consequences - for them, others, or me. A disabled person often does not want their independence undermined by people rushing to "help". Consoling a lost child is likely to result in you being assaulted or arrested. Stopping someone taking responsibility for themselves can breed a lack of self-reliance.

Chris, London

It is possible to "train" or "socialise" responses. Here in the Czech Republic, children are taught to give their seats on the bus, tram or metro to older people, people with visible disabilities (like on crutches or with a stick), or to mothers with young children. Having lived most of my life in England, this was a noticeable difference in my experience when I came to live in Prague.

Glynn Kirkhan, Jesenice-Kocanda, Czech Republic

I believe it is human nature to be unkind, selfish and apathetic. And so the learning of that which is completely against that nature, namely kindness, from my perspective, begins with first being greatly humbled. It is intensely personal, and intimate within the confines of one's own heart, because it requires one to be so greatly humbled. At least in my opinion. It is only when kindness is viewed as absolutely necessary, and a need to be performed, that people will no longer choose or not choose to be. As to what brought about this change in me? My heavenly father.

Willliam Morgan, Denver, US

I have been consciously cultivating compassion through Zen meditation. I have done little acts of kindness in the last couple of years which seems to create a good feeling in me and encourage me to replicate such deeds. I think most people are kind but are inhibited to act out their kindness. Training people to be kind might reduce such inhibition. It seems to be happening with me

Harry Somaraju, Auckland, New Zealand

I sponsored an Ethiopian orphan through uni. Hanna is now a really good, well paid teacher in Addis. I also helped an Iraqi family get asylum in the UK: They've now set up a workshop for apprentice car mechanics in Leicester! The more I show kindness, the more it's returned. This may not be by the person who I was kind to, but someone else later that day, or that week. It's given me the best experiences and greatest adventures I've ever had in my whole life. I REALLY recommend it!

Annette Allen, Buckingham, UK

I was always brought up to think of others and to understand the concept of perception. [And] at the age of 14 I recall a history lesson and being taught about WW2, in particular how people in Germany stood back and didn't act in the face of the horrendous things that were happening. I remember thinking that I would never stand by when I saw injustice...and I never have, usually to my personal detriment. I have stood in the way of a gang beating up an individual/helped on several occasions when I felt that a woman appeared to be the victim of domestic abuse... On the other hand I don't know if I would have been like that without that lesson and my upbringing.

KMac, London, UK

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