La terre est parfois si jolie. – Jacques Prévert
I used to live in Paris and this is one of my favorite quotes. In english, it translates to: sometimes the earth can be so beautiful. I like (I hope) all of us was outraged by the action of former hedge-fund manager Martin Shkreli when he raised the price of Daraprim from $13.50 per tablet to $750 per tablet.
But let faith be restored for human kindness. Imprimis, a young compounding drug company in San Diego has stepped in to make Daraprim at $1/dose. Hurray for Imprimis! Lets put this jerk out of business. After all without customers he has nothing to sell.
The way people receive kindness, depends a lot on how we frame it. We are all susceptible to “stranger danger”, so we need to think about our delivery if we are going to make dramatic changes in the world.
Sandi Mann, a psychologist at the University of Central Lancashire, had just embarked on a new project to explore the phenomenon of “paying it forward”. Mann’s idea was to try it herself for a couple of weeks and observe the way people react.
“I thought they’d be delighted – that everything would be warm and cuddly, Instead, I just got stares of bewilderment. There was this suspicion: Had I spat on it? Is it poisoned?”
Her first task should have been simple enough. The setting was familiar – her local coffee shop – and she was accompanied by her (“cringing”) children. All she wanted to do was to give away her seven-year-old’s unwanted cup of coffee. Yet as she walked among the tables, she was just met with suspicion rather than gratitude. “I felt like saying ‘I’m only trying to do something nice.’”
It was only once she framed the act differently, so that it seemed more logical, and less altruistic, that their attitudes changed.
“Suddenly it was a different story altogether – it made perfect sense that my kid won’t drink coffee.” They still refused, but “the suspicion vanished, and there were smiles, and thanks”. Eventually it was accepted by a lady named Rochel, who subsequently found an opportunity later in the week to treat someone else.
That initial mistrust was a common theme for each of the following 13 days – in which she tried to offer strangers an umbrella on a rainy day, pay for someone’s parking ticket, and let fellow shoppers jump ahead of her in checkout queues. “Suspicion was the strongest reaction throughout,” she says. Each time, it was only when she offered a rational explanation – such as the fact she was waiting for someone at the checkout – that people would accept her offers.
Like many people, Mann’s interest in everyday kindness started with a heart-warming post on her Facebook feed. Her American friend Debbie had been visiting a drive-through coffee shop only to find that the person ahead had already settled her bill. “She was so chuffed – it made her day,” says Mann. Straight away, she was intrigued by the philosophy’s potential – the idea that a single act of kindness could “have a knock-on effect, like the butterfly effect”, sending ripples of goodwill through the world.
As Mann started reading up on the subject, she found that the principle has a deep history. In Italy, wealthier Neapolitans have long embraced the tradition of buying a “caffe sospeso” in addition to their own, for someone who is less able to pay for the luxury. Benjamin Franklin is one of the most famous proponents of the idea. While lending some money to a friend, he explained: “I do not pretend to give such a deed; I only lend it to you; when you meet with another honest man in similar distress, you must pay me by lending this sum to him,” he wrote. “This is a trick of mine for doing a deal of good with a little money.”
Today, “paying it forward” has become a popular and far-reaching movement – it has even spawned anovel and film. Google the term, and you will read heart-warming stories of grandiose acts of goodwill – like the generous philanthropists anonymously calling hospitals topay for expensive operations, without expecting so much as a simple thank you.
In spite of her initial experience of mistrust, Mann, for one, is convinced that we can all change for the better. As a clinical psychologist, she has even started advising people with depression to try and incorporate small acts of generosity or kindness into their therapy.
Here is a wonderful article about a man named Ferdinando Buscema. Buscema is a magical experience designer. He helps people make every day experiences become magical.
I started reading this article because It sounded way cool that this job description even existed, but when it mentioned Improv Everywhere (who I’ve written about before in the context of kindness) and their romantic comedy cab I knew I was in for a treat.
I also learned a spectacular new word. Liminal. Being in advertising, I am of course familiar with the word subliminal, but liminal is equally as interesting a word. It means the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the transition from the unfamiliar to the familiar. Like extreme awe. Or the way awe is experienced as a child (I’m paraphrasing here, but who wouldn’t want to experience this in our MyAlfred world where it seems a startup is born every day to make our lives simpler easier – quel horror – more predictable.
Anyway, scroll down to the end of this article to discover this exciting twist on the pay-it-forward concept:
Lately, Buscema has been conducting some magical experiments in mall parking lots. He’ll take a 50 Euro bill and place it, along with a handwritten note, under the windshield wiper of a random, humble-looking car. (“The flavor of the note,” says Buscema, “is like: ‘Someone is caring for you; you have a hidden support.’”)
Note placed, he waits. Invariably, when the driver returns, their reaction is to be suspicious, then astounded, at the discovery of the anonymous gift.
“You can make someone’s day with even $10,” says Buscema. “But it’s not the amount of money that gets the job done—it’s the message.”
When he commits random acts of kindness, he is “creating an experience that will keep people’s minds spinning for some time, I like to think, in a fertile way. And that’s how I play my game.”
If you are feeling brave, they both have a book out called L’arte di stupire, but currently it’s only published in Italian.
In our film, Kindness Is Contagious, we profile Daria Mabra, who donated a Kidney to her next door neighbor who she hardly knew. This introduced me to the concept of kidney chains (although Daria’s altruism was not a true Kidney chain).
A kidney Chain starts with an altruistic donor – someone who wants to donate a kidney out of the goodness of his or her heart. That kidney is transplanted into a recipient who had a donor willing to give a kidney, but was not a match. To keep the chain going, the incompatible donor gives a kidney to a patient unknown to him or her who has been identified as a match, essentially “paying it forward.” A specialized computer program matches donors and recipients across the country.
I love this concept as it exemplifies how kindness leads to success in the most basic way, by giving life. It also shows in a real world environment how a group of people are better off by virtue of kindness and cooperation.
One of the things people have noticed that although it is sometimes the case in a single group that altruists tend to do worse than people who aren’t altruistic, whenever you have more than one group, groups that have altruists in them tend to do much better than the group that have only selfish people in them and so between groups, the groups with more altruists tend to win.
Lastly, if anyone wants to get involved in a Kidney chain, CLICK HERE for more information.
Via UCLA Health.
Kindness Is Contagious is a great way to open up a dialogue about kindness in your community. After our screening there was a terrific dialogue and guests posed many very interesting questions. “Why make a film about kindness when there are so many problems in the world that need immediate attention?” “What effect do surveillance cameras have on our behavior? Does it make us behave better or worse?” And my personal favorite: “When I was young, children were much nicer and more respectful to their elders than they are today, how come?” (I remember my dad saying the exact same thing when I was little).
On hand to answer these questions and many more were James Fowler, Co-Author of the book Connected: The power of social networks and how they shape our lives, Sara Glaser, Producer of Kindness Is Contagious, Brandon Schott, Composer of the Soundtrack and of course myself.
Here is a terrific book by Dr. Donald Pfaff that scientifically demonstrates how humans are hardwired for kindness. The main premise is that humans are born ‘prematurely’ in comparison to all other animals. That means that we need lots and lots of care—and so evolutionary success and survival has depended not just on caring mothers, but on caring fathers, grandmothers, and other relatives as well. Evolutionary psychologist Micheal Tomasello says “To an unprecedented degree, homo sapiens are adapted for acting and thinking cooperatively in cultural groups, and indeed all of human’s most impressive cognitive achievements—from complex technologies to linguistic and mathematical symbols to intricate social institutions—are the products, not of individuals acting alone, but of individuals interacting.”
“The Altruistic Brain synthesizes all the most important research into how and why – at a purely physical level – humans empathize with one another and respond altruistically. It demonstrates that human beings are “wired” to behave altruistically in the first instance, such that unprompted, spontaneous kindness is our default behavior; such behavior comes naturally, irrespective of religious or cultural determinants. Based on his own research and that of some of the world’s most eminent scientists, Dr. Pfaff puts together well-established brain mechanisms into a theory that is at once novel but also easily demonstrable. He further explains how, using psycho-social approaches that are now well understood, we can clear away obstacles to the brain’s natural, altruistic inclinations. This is the first book not only to explain why we are naturally good, but to suggest means of making us behave as well as we can.”
It’s funny how many people insist that nice guys finish last when there is so much scientific evidence to the contrary.
David Gaz, James Fowler, Sara Glaser and Brandon Schott were on hand at Stanford Univerity’s CCARE, The Center for Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at the Stanford University School of Medicine, for a Screening of Kindness Is Contagious and a discussion about kindness on Thursday December 4th. It was a packed room and there was a heated discussion about the importance of kindness in todays world when confronted with the massive social and economic inequality we face among both industrial and developing nations.
Past guests have included Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Amma (Mata Amritanandamayi) and none other than the Dalai Lama.
Photo by Vladimir Perlovich
On the island of New Britain, anthropologist Jane Goodale witnessed a group of Kaulong children play a game after they had been given one banana each. Their play, however, did not resemble the competition that is common in Westernized societies. Instead, each child proceeded to eat half of their banana, then offer the remaining half to another child who would offer his uneaten half in return. They would then cut this portion in half, eat one piece, and trade the remaining quarters. The children proceeded in this nature for five trades, finally eating the last bite.
The children were practicing the collaboration that will be a necessary skill through their entire lives. While many pre-schools and kindergartens continue to teach sharing, in Western society it has become a virtue instead of a requirement. Our modern states all developed from tribes over time, leaving behind many of the behaviors that were once common. Development of a tribal society into progressively larger entities, ultimately statehood, cuts the close cooperative bonds that members of tribes have. This tribal bond may appear utopian to outsiders, but it is actually a pragmatic way of survival. A group of 30-70 people with a small farming area and some hunting and gathering need to pool all their resources.
As previously uncontacted groups enter capitalist democracies they often react to the comparative plenty by consuming in patterns that we would recognize—increasing food consumption, concern with trendy clothing, and acquiring items of their own in order to better their own lives. In prosperous, large countries such as the U.S. hallmarks of success include independence and conspicuous consumption. “Co-dependent” is considered an insult and generosity must be encouraged with tax deductions. It seems almost impossible that humans could have created two such different ways of life, but ultimately, sharing is no more part of human nature than hoarding. Unfortunately, societies at both ends of the spectrum of total co-dependence to total independence tend to be intolerant of divergent ways of life. Just as tribes discourage their members from self-aggrandizement at the expense of others, capitalist states discourage those who rely on each other for necessities. Individual achievement is all important, more fundamental than community wellbeing. The argument continues as to whether healthy communities create successful individuals or wealthy individuals revitalize the community.
Living in a large, prosperous state has advantages to living in a small tribe. On average, we live longer, healthier lives, free from constant fear of starvation, injury, and illness. Yet despite the increased wealth and more material goods, food insecurity continues, especially in impoverished communities. Attempts at sharing goods are limited in scope and face many challenges in creating long-term impact. Our societies have grown large and diverse, and in response people create their own communities to which they are committed—generally family members and friends. People continue to share and gift amongst these groups; however the groups are largely comprised of people belonging to the same economic class. In 2013, anthropologists from UC Santa Barbara found in two separate studies that reciprocity in food sharing among humans and other primates is significant. In effect, both humans and their close primate relatives share when it benefits them. This should not be taken only as a direct exchange but also in the more abstract sense. We share with family and friends because we expect that they will share with us in our time of need. In tribes, constant sharing maintains the health of the entire group. Generosity within the tribe is beneficial to the self, and perhaps that mindset can be promoted within large states by creating a sort of food community.
There is no society, primitive, agricultural, or industrialized that has the perfect answer to the question of how to distribute resources, even necessities like food, evenly throughout society. This very superficial discussion of some of the reasons for food sharing is merely a starting place for further discussion of a topic that is extremely important and can be very personal to people who have struggled to get adequate nutrition.
In our own society, what we really want to do is find a way to share the abundance of food that our own agricultural industry creates amongst the over 300 million people in our country, with less emphasis placed on wealth or personal social groups. Certain organizations are already created to do this – food banks and soup kitchens immediately come to mind but there are numerous other organizations that provide free or reduced priced food to their constituents. This is one way to share food amongst the population, but there is something odd about the creation of specific places at which one might share, the industry of generosity. It is also significant that such organizations are often limited in what types of food they can redistribute- canned goods are among the most common- making the food less nutritious and often packed with undesirable additives like sugar and salt.
Agriculture in the United States is a massive industry that creates huge amounts of food, but much of it is in extreme excess (corn, grain) and much is limited. But changing the business of agriculture is perhaps unnecessary- instead of continuing to put the production of food in the hands of someone else, we can all take ownership of our food production and possibly through that increase food availability throughout our communities.
It is significant that in rural areas, where people often grow their own produce and have farm animals like chickens, cows, or goats that food sharing becomes much more common. During harvest seasons, a family will often have more fruit and vegetables than they can eat or preserve- and in towns in which everyone has a farm, selling these goods at high prices (like at the suburban farmer’s market) simply isn’t a feasible plan. The same goes for eggs and milk products. Instead, people give away and exchange food much more often than suburban and urban populations. While it is not an option for all city dwellers to have garden plots, community gardens could be encouraged and become more popular as the benefits become obvious. In suburban areas, small portions of every person’s yard could be dedicated to edible plants and possibly small livestock. Some people would like never produce more than they need or want, while others would produce nothing, and others still would produce excess- but by slowly leveling the supply and demand for currently expensive or hard to get food products, people are encouraged to share food rather than hoard it.
Community gardens and personal food production are just two suggestions for increasing the amount of fresh, healthy food we share throughout our communities. The community garden seems especially promising because they can be created even in urban areas and are by nature a shared space producing shared resources. Through such a space perhaps everyone can practice selflessness and sharing, slowly making it a part of daily life. Hopefully, the benefits of a healthy community can be seen by all those participating, and like a tribe, they will begin to naturally share throughout the group.
The promise during the 50s was that computers would make it so that people would not have work as hard and usher in a brand new society of leisure.
The reality is far from that. What happened is that we ended up competing against the computers we built and have to work even harder now. Leisure is on the decline.
Computers have made wages drop or stagnate and jobs disappear for most of us and increased wealth exponentially for the few who introduced the technology.
This is because computers have been designed to help the human beings who introduce new technology compete against other human beings with lesser outdated technology. So in effect we have been building “selfish machines”.
Now the big problem comes when these selfish machines we have been collectively building hit the tipping point and become smarter than we are (what we call Artificial Intelligence or AI), human beings will no longer be part of the innovation process. This means all of humanity will now be competing against the selfish machines and that the wealth produced by them will reside with those who introduce new technology – in this case the selfish machines themselves.
Now as I see it, therein lies the problem.
We are building (most) machines with a Darwinian goal – to compete. And competition means inevitably survival of the fittest. And the only end game I see in this scenario, supported by people way smarter than me, is that these machines will be the fittest.
Maybe the answer is to evolve past Darwinism. Or at least past individual Darwinism and towards a collective Darwinism. Maybe the answer is to build machines that elevate the whole human race: democratically, universally without judgement or prejudice.
You See since we build the “selfish machines” to help an individual or group of humans compete against other individuals or groups of humans then that code will inevitably be at the heart of any AI program we build.
If instead we build “kind machines” that help ALL of humanity, machines that elevate our species as a whole rather than elevate the individuals who build them, then that will be the code that resides at the heart of AI and then and only then will humanity have a chance.
So now is time to start building “kind machines”, before that choice is out of our reach.
Illustration by Tofu Verde
Areas of Academic Interest include:
Sociology, Psychology, Social Sciences, Education, Philosophy, Leadership, Ethics, Social Work, Communications, Business, Anthropology, Biology
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This Holds True For Business Teams as well.
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