Where Does Kindness Come From?

A new study fuses methods from several different branches of science to reveal the forces that shape kindness.

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What’s behind your choice to help another human being? Are you motivated by sheer, unadulterated benevolence? Do you do it only if the cost is minimal, or the benefits great? Or are you hoping for a favor in return? Or is it about image—are you trying to avoid being tagged as selfish? Maybe you’re motivated by a higher sense of principle, trying to restore fairness?

Science has considered all of these questions. It might be a relief to hear that researchers have not figured out the formula for what makes people kind—but with a very ambitious new study, a pioneering team from Germany might have brought us one step closer to some answers.

Researchers Anne Böckler, Anita Tusche, and Tania Singer analyzed years of data about how contemplative practice—i.e., meditation—affects a slew of biological and behavioral measures (The ReSource Project). To investigate the facets and forces of kindness, they honed in on 329 study recruits who responded to questionnaires about empathy, kindness, and personality.

They also catalogued their behavior on computer-based and laboratory tasks designed to gauge kindness, self-interest (e.g., “game theoretical paradigms” and “hypothetical distribution tasks”),…