Lehigh University
Lehigh University

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Random acts of kindness?

A U.S. 1st Cavalry soldier shares his water ration with a Viet Cong suspect captured during Operation Walowa in this Viet Cong stronghold.

Michael Gill

A group of people hear the same story on the evening news: A militant group takes hostages and dozens of children are killed. Some viewers burn with rage and violent impulses, yearning for retribution. Others experience concern, refrain from impulsive blaming, and question the value of revenge.

Why, asks Michael Gill, do some people crave vengeance, where others seek to understand and remedy the diffuse causes that give rise to atrocities? For that matter, what motivates some to consistently act with kindness and compassion rather than hostility or apathy, or even reach out to total strangers across the globe?

Over the past decade, associate professor of psychology Gill, has been getting a better understanding of prosocial behavior, the voluntary behaviors intended to benefit and help others. Gill has been trying to decipher the code embedded within deeply entrenched cultural beliefs to better understand the psychological principles that govern prosocial thinking, knowing, emotion, and behavior.

Stated more simply, what motivates the human tendencies to think, feel, or behave in ways that reflect concern for the well-being of others?

Gill notes that psychologists have identified several bases of prosociality. Perhaps the most emphasized is empathy: We can "put ourselves in another's shoes" and experience someone else's suffering almost as if it were our own. With that foundation, it is possible for some to understand the suffering of the impoverished, or those caught in war zones, and the vicarious experience of this pain can inspire a prosocial response.

A second basis of prosociality is the embrace of moral principles that might be completely independent of vicarious feeling. Some might strictly adhere to rules such as "thou shalt not kill" or "give to the poor."

Gill, who teaches both graduate and undergraduate courses on social psychology, social cognition, and theories of personality, seeks to understand social explanations, or the answers to questions such as: Why does that individual or group behave that way or experience those outcomes? His goal is to highlight novel variables--beyond empathy and moral principles--as bases of prosociality.

Gill's research reveals that, when explaining the acts of others, some people point to seemingly internal factors: "they are evil," "they are stupid and lazy," "they are like animals."

Contrast that, he says, with explanations offered by other people in which acts are viewed as dependent on external factors, influences outside of the individual or group.

These external explanations can be incredibly diverse: "their culture does not expose them to alternative points of view," "they grow up in an atmosphere of hopelessness," or "they do not have the same access to social networks as others." Such explanations imply that the individual or group is not thinking independently, but is instead influenced by factors outside its control.

In Gill's research, this distinction between internal and external explanations has proven important for understanding prosociality.

For example, participants in one study provided open-ended explanations to questions regarding the social position of African Americans. In another, participants provided open-ended explanations regarding the violence of Arab terrorists. In both studies, trained judges coded participant explanations in terms of whether they focused on internal or external factors.

The studies indicated that, across these different groups, participants who called on external explanations were associated with more prosocial responses. These groups had warmer feelings toward African Americans and were more supportive of the value of diversity and had more misgivings about killing terrorists as the solution to terrorism.

In other studies, Gill manipulated explanations rather than measuring them, with similar results: Presenting people with information about external causes increases prosocial responses toward disadvantaged groups and groups that have committed atrocities.

Recently, Gill has moved beyond a focus on how people think about one particular group. Instead, he is exploring the possibility that people have social explanatory styles, or characteristic ways of explaining acts and outcomes across diverse individuals and groups.

His research suggests that people do have such styles: When asked to explain the positive and negative acts and outcomes of 16 unfamiliar individuals and groups, some people consistently pointed to external forces, whereas others consistently pointed to internal forces. Importantly, those with an external explanatory style also scored higher on a measure tapping broad tendencies toward compassionate feelings.

Interestingly, this work also revealed that an external explanatory style was associated with a tendency toward thinking deeply and analytically.

Gill interprets this as suggesting that, ironically, a compassionate heart can grow out of the analytic work of the rational mind. Synthesizing his work with that of others, Gill suggests prosociality has many distinct psychological bases, growing out of emotional processes (empathy), conformity to norms (moral principles), and also reasoning (social explanations).

Why prosociality?

Gill's devotion to understanding these forms of social behavior stems back to the 1990s, when he encountered the work of Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen master who writes extensively on the topics of socially engaged Buddhism and compassion.

"My brother mailed me a copy of Nhat Hanh's book, Being Peace, which I read in one sitting," says Gill. "It was a powerful, inspiring experience and, over the years, his ideas have permeated my life, including my research."

Recognizing the Buddhist tenet that happiness stems from a life lived in accordance with our true nature, Hahn teaches that when we fail to lead lives that draw upon our more prosocial natural traits--compassion, empathy, need for connectedness--we are less happy and less hopeful. Gill recognized that his profession involved communicating an image of human nature through teaching and research. He wondered: What image of human nature is painted by my discipline? He decided that it is not a flattering image: People are portrayed as selfish, competitive, prone to blame and hate.

"Of course, these negative portrayals contain some truth, but I think they are incomplete and likely to increase cynicism and unhappiness. So, in my work, I try to highlight positive potentials of human beings--sympathy, reconciliation, concern about others- to give a more complete understanding of human nature."

Crucially important to Gill is the concept that people are shaped by their view of human nature.

"We act based on whatever we think is 'natural' for human beings," he says. "And that raises significant issues, such as what does my discipline contribute to the image of human nature in the collective consciousness? So, I see myself as working on two levels. First, my research shows how social explanations contribute to prosociality. Second, at a broader level, my work reminds us that prosociality is part of human nature, providing a vision of human nature that can transform us into happier, more prosocial beings."

Story by Linda Harbrecht

Posted on Thursday, January 28, 2010

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