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Senate House Library

The Psychology of Kindness


Written by
Mura Ghosh, Academic Librarian for Psychology, Philosophy and Social Sciences

Discover the online collections, books and famous psychological experiments that have explored kindness and empathy in this blog by Mura Ghosh, Academic Librarian for Psychology, Philosophy and Social Sciences

“Kindness in words creates confidence. Kindness in thinking creates profoundness. Kindness in giving creates love” Lao-Tzu

“Kindness is the golden chain by which society is bound together” Goethe

This year’s Mental Health Awareness week 18-24 May 2020 is appropriately focused on kindness.  As we are trying to cope with and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, we are acutely aware how acts of kindness have the ability to inspire, deepen our solidarity, and unlock our shared humanity. 

Darwin himself observed that humans have an enormous capacity for prosocial, cooperative and altruistic behaviour.  Positive psychology recognises widely its significance as a universal character strength and virtue. At the same time, social psychology studies observe that helping behaviour is contagious. Could cultivating and extending compassion be modelled to create a kinder society in the 21st century in the aftermath of global lockdown?

What is kindness and how can we measure it?

Kindness as a research interest has been experiencing a boom in the last decade. Psychological literature abounds with studies of its effects particularly on the well-being and mental health of the giver. 

One recent such study has rigorously looked at psychological processes underlying kindness and produced The Kindness Measure (Canter et al., 2017), a 40 item self-report questionnaire. Perhaps not surprisingly, benign tolerance and courteousness, empathetic consideration for the feelings of others, altruistic and honourable behaviour are all part of the essence of this elusive quality. 

The Mental Health Foundation’s website has a helpful list of Random acts of kindness during the coronavirus outbreak. A title search on ‘kindness OR altruism OR empathy OR compassion OR helping OR prosocial’ in Senate House Library’s PsycTESTS database will reveal no less than 256 tests & scales by which such aspects of human personality and behaviour could be analysed. The Acts of Kindness Scale (Andreychik & Migliaccio, 2015) might be one such measure to help us understand how and why we do it.

Browsing the Library catalogue is the best way to discover more books and journal articles in print and electronic formats on this topic.

Empathy titles

Is kindness a trait or is it context-dependent?

The Good Samaritan Experiment offers a possible answer. Hurrying prevents helping! Good, moral thoughts about norms of behaviour do not necessarily translate into good deeds. Dispositional factors are relatively weak predictors of what we do.  Situational ones, such as the speed of our daily lives, on the other hand, play powerful roles in shaping our actions. Even caring people who are in a hurry may experience a narrowing of their cognition and may fail to respond adequately in an emergency. We could speculate, perhaps, that the slowing of our lives during the lockdown months has somewhat awakened our innate Good Samaritan by allowing more time for acts of individual and collective kindness.   

The iconic Bystander Apathy Experiment gives a similar answer to the same question.  In an emergency situation, we typically experience the ‘bystander effect’.  We assume that someone else will intervene; the larger the number of bystanders, the likelihood of intervention decreases. When many people are around, we may feel less responsibility to take action, or we may fear embarrassment for behaving inappropriately. It is also likely that we may fail to perceive the situation as an emergency if no one else seems to be reacting. Can the bystander effect explain our slow responses to COVID-19 in February and March? What if it turned out to be a false alarm like other viruses before? What if humans could adapt automatically to it and we have taken measures too extreme? As a result, might it not be better to wait and see?    

So what are heroic acts in an emergency? It seems that people are more inclined to take action when they understand clearly that a situation is critical, when they realise that they are in danger themselves, when they feel personally responsible, and when they believe that they have the right skills to succeed.

These and many other important psychological experiments of the 20th and 21st century can be explored using Senate House Library’s exciting multimedia collection published by Alexander Street Press – Psychological Experiments Online.

Psychological experiments online

More in Senate House Library’s collections

Guides to our collections in Psychology, Philosophy and Social Sciences provide an overview of print and electronic resources during the Library’s closure.  For any information and research support please contact the Academic Librarian.


Mura Ghosh, Academic Librarian for Psychology, Philosophy and Social Sciences