Kindness

Three takes on kindness. First, a person I scarcely know – without any guile or hesitation – kindly bought me my coffee at work on Friday. I was completely thrown by it. An older man, he works in Human Resources. My implicit assumption, as we queued, was he would be against pretty much everything I’ve done in the last 3 years – targets, strategising, downsizing and redundancies. I expected him to look to get away from me as fast as politely possible. But no, he opened his wallet pulled out a five pound note and asked me what I would like. I had a coffee and a nice talk.

I sent him an email last night to thank him for his kindness. I said how touched I was and that kindnesses are like ripples from a pebble thrown in a pond. They multiply and spread and can go on to lap over many people. I said his kindness went on to touch everyone I met for the rest of the day. And this wasn’t an an idle promise – Wired thinks so too.

Take two. In a rare moment of peace, with the family out and about, I looked up the definition of cognitive dissonance this morning. I’ve got cognitive dissonance at the moment, as, in a significant life choice, events have unfolded in a way which completely mystifies me. Reading Wikipedia, I find one feature of cognitive dissonance is ‘sour grapes’. When expectations are not met, or the actuality turns out not to meet your expectations, we rubbish the things we previously wanted or valued. Like Aesop’s fox who branded the grapes ‘sour’ because he couldn’t reach them; we desire something, find it unattainable, and reduce our dissonance by trashing it. The technical term is “adaptive preference formation.” Sour grapes probably help keep us sane.

But as interesting for me was the ‘Benjamin Franklin effect’. I’m increasingly a fan of old Ben – he had a good life and good approach to it. When I get some time I plan to read his autobiography. I’ve already downloaded it in expectation. Here’s how Wikipedia describes the effect:

Franklin won over a political opponent by asking him a favour and he relates thus:

I did not … aim at gaining his favour by paying any servile respect to him but, after some time, took this other method. Having heard that he had in his library a certain very scarce and curious book, I wrote a note to him, expressing my desire of perusing that book, and requesting he would do me the favour of lending it to me for a few days. He sent it immediately, and I return’d it in about a week with another note, expressing strongly my sense of the favour. When we next met in the House, he spoke to me (which he had never done before), and with great civility; and he ever after manifested a readiness to serve me on all occasions, so that we became great friends, and our friendship continued to his death. This is another instance of the truth of an old maxim I had learned, which says, “He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.”

Apparently after lending Franklin the book, the opponent had to resolve the ‘dissonance’ of his attitude towards Franklin, because he had just done him a favour. He justified doing the favour by convincing himself that he actually liked Franklin, and, as a result, treated him with respect instead of rudeness from then on. Marvellous.

Take three. It’s a wonderful thing Wikipedia. The emergent wisdom of the crowd and the ‘perfect equilibrium’ between the supply of generous volunteer experts and demand from thirsty enquirers after knowledge. But economics is economics, and they do need a bit of money to make it work. I got an email this week from Wikimedia UK Foundation offering me ‘hearty thanks’ – in their words – for the kindness of my spontaneous donation on 22 December. As I noted at the time, they got the money largely thanks to Aristotle. Aristotle has convinced me that virtues aren’t born in, they are made. And I reckon giving £50 to Wikimedia was my first truly instinctive Aristotelian moral act. Instant, without question, recognising that there was no penalty for free riding, but just giving to Wikipedia because I use it, value it and am grateful for it.

So whether you subscribe to the the ‘cascade of kindness’ theory, the reverse psychology of Benjamin Franklin or the ‘trained’ ethics of Aristotle, of one thing I am certain – kindness is powerful stuff.

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