Kindness Is Contagious

Teach Your Children Well

6 min read

July 16, 2001 -- Like many others around the world, psychologist Jonathan Haidt, PhD, recalls the first time he heard South African civil rights leader Nelson Mandela speak after his release from prison. Jailed since the early 1960s, Mandela emerged in 1990 urging reconciliation and cooperation in building a democratic, post-apartheid South Africa.

"Here was a man who had been imprisoned his whole life," says Haidt, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville. "If anyone had a right to be angry, it was Mandela. Yet it was he who said that we all must work together."

Haidt recalls a sensation upon hearing Mandela's words, something subtle but undeniably real -- something similar, perhaps, to what you felt the last time you witnessed any act of remarkable generosity or largeness of spirit: a momentary pause, a flutter in the chest, a tingling in the hands.

"It gave me chills," Haidt recalls. "Just remembering it brings the sensation back."

That "sensation," Haidt believes, is neither an inconsequential response limited to one transitory moment of awe, nor a vague and indecipherable "feeling." Rather, the effect that comes from witnessing acts of charity or courage may be a profoundly important universal phenomenon worthy of scientific research, he says.

Haidt is a pioneer in studying the effects that good deeds and acts of valor have on those who witness them -- an effect he has termed "elevation."

While Haidt's work is still largely theoretical, he says parents can apply the principles of elevation in everyday interactions with children. For instance, he cites William Bennett's The Book of Virtues -- which describes models of virtuous behavior from history and literature -- as a potent source of what he calls "moral exemplars" for kind and virtuous behavior.

"No one thing is going to make much of a difference, but talking about virtues and vices when they arrive in daily life, plus modeling virtuous behavior yourself, can help to create a sense of a moral world," Haidt says.

The study of elevation by Haidt is part of a larger movement termed "positive psychology." It is a growing area of scientific inquiry focusing on aspects of human experience once considered off-limits to scientists: forgiveness, spirituality, gratitude, optimism, humor.

In part, this movement is a reaction to a long tradition within the psychological sciences of concentrating on what's wrong with an individual rather than what's right. That tradition has contributed to a tendency to attribute all human behavior to dark or dishonest motives, and given an excessive focus on mental disease and illness, at the expense of attention to mental health and happiness, Haidt and others say.

"Funding [for research] has been almost entirely for disease prevention," Haidt says. "There's lots of money for mental illness, but not for mental health. Positive psychology doesn't say that's wrong, just unbalanced. Even a little bit of research [on mental health] would have huge payoffs."

Psychologist Christopher Peterson, PhD, of the University of Michigan, agrees.

"Psychologists know a lot about stress and trauma," he says. "Why don't we know as much about what makes life worth living?"

Haidt's interest in the elevating effects of witnessing good deeds grew out of earlier research on something quite different: the phenomenon of disgust.

That work led him to define disgust as a reaction to seeing other people move downward on what he calls a "scale of cognitions." And the thought occurred to him: What happens when you witness people moving up on that scale, performing noble and generous acts?

"I had never read anything about this in any psychology article, so I decided to study it for myself," Haidt says.

In a book chapter called "Flourishing: The Positive Person and the Good Life" -- to be published later this year by the American Psychological Association -- Haidt outlines a scientific approach to understanding elevation, and some preliminary efforts to describe and measure it.

In that chapter, Haidt describes a simple study in which he asked college students to recall and write about times when they saw a "manifestation of humanity's higher or better nature." As a comparison, students were also asked to think of something that produced happiness -- specifically, to recall a time when they were "making good progress toward a goal" -- but did not produce elevation.

In a second study, elevation was induced in subjects by showing them 10-minute video clips: one about the life of Mother Teresa; one comedy video; and one emotionally neutral but interesting documentary.

In both studies, Haidt says, participants reported different patterns of physical feelings and motivations during the elevated thoughts. "Elevated participants were more likely to report physical feelings in their chests, especially warm, pleasant, or tingling feelings, and they were more likely to report wanting to help others, to become better people themselves, and to affiliate with others," Haidt writes in the forthcoming book.

Haidt acknowledges the difficulties in studying elevation. Among these is that the phenomenon does not appear to be accompanied by a distinguishing facial expression -- the kind of trait most often used as a physical marker for other emotional or psychological states.

"Psychologists are struggling to be scientific about subtle phenomena," he says. "We tend to gravitate toward any objective marker, and facial expression is the most expressive marker for emotion."

But Haidt says he believes there is at least one measurable response associated with elevation: namely, stimulation of the vagus nerve, which affects heart beat rate. In forthcoming studies, Haidt says he hopes to induce elevation in subjects, and then measure its effect on the vagus nerve.

So how might positive psychology and insights into elevation be applied in real life to parenting and education? Haidt says the principles of elevation have informed at least one school-based education program.

That program, called "Kindness Is Contagious: Catch It," began in a single Kansas City, Mo., school and has since spread to more than 400 public schools in the area, according to Su Ellen Fried, founder of the Stop Violence Coalition, which now sponsors the school-based program.

Among the activities the program encourages is one in which children are asked to fill up two jars with beans. One jar contains a bean for every time a child receives a put-down, insult, or injury; another jar contains a bean for every time a child receives a "put-up" or an act of kindness.

"It gives kids a visual image of what they are doing to each other," Fried tells WebMD. "The purpose is to increase the put-ups and decrease the put-downs."

A second activity is called "Pass It On," in which a teacher provides a general overview of what kindness is, and then waits to observe a spontaneous act of kindness among the classmates. When the teacher witnesses such an act, she or he gives the kind child an object -- say, a red apple -- and tells the child that he or she is now a witness and must pass the apple on to whomever performs a similar act of kindness.

"The feedback we got was amazing," Fried says. "Kids wanted to be observed performing acts of kindness. They were overdosing on kindness."

Interested parents can purchase two volumes of guidebooks describing the program and its activities for $20. Write to the Stop Violence Coalition, 301 East Armour, Suite 440, Kansas City, MO 64111.

Will the program work and truly create an "epidemic" of kindness? Time will tell, but psychologists say that educational programs focusing exclusively on the dangers of certain behavior, without corresponding models of right behavior, are unlikely to succeed.

Peterson says such programs -- like anti-drug campaigns that admonish kids to "Just Say No" -- have been an "abysmal failure."

"It's clear that if you want your kids to be better kids, you can't just tell them what not to do, if you aren't giving them an alternative about what they should do," Peterson tells WebMD.