Moving Past Stranger Danger

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.

Via BBC Future. Photo Dasha Gaian