“In the Same Lifeboat.” A Funder Looks to Uncover and Apply the Science Behind Kindness

PHOTO: ANDREYPOPOV/SHUTTERSTOCK

PHOTO: ANDREYPOPOV/SHUTTERSTOCK

In August of 2017, Hurricane Harvey dumped several feet of rain on Houston, Texas, causing catastrophic flooding. Official responders didn’t have enough personnel or boats to rescue all the people trapped by the rising waters. So private citizens who owned small boats drove from all over Texas and beyond to ferry people to safety. These were brave and generous acts.

Extraordinary acts of kindness and concern for the well-being of others are not rare. People help their neighbors, rush to rescue a kid in a burning car, and more. But ask the same neighbor or pedestrian to pay more in taxes to improve schools and healthcare, or support regulations to limit the climate change that leads to heavier rainfall in flood-prone areas, and likely as not, they will hunker down, worrying instead about their own bank account and personal interests.

Why are people kind and compassionate in some situations but suspicious and disobliging in others? Social scientists have long asked questions like this because they are at the core of so many of the important concerns in society and how to address them. These debates seem to have intensified in a hyper-connected modern world, where the pace of change and dangers like climate change only accelerate.

A Bid to Scale Connectedness

The Bedari Foundation, a private family foundation established by Jennifer and Matthew C. Harris, supports work in conservation, community and health, and currently run programs in Africa and Asia. It’s worked to encourage the sense of connectedness between people and nature, and between cultures, that its founders believe is central to humanity’s success.

Now, the Harrises want to support development of the science and the tools behind kindness and connectedness to scale these qualities for the global community. The Bedari Foundation recently committed $20 million to the University of California Los Angeles to create the new UCLA Bedari Kindness Institute, following a three-year period of development with UCLA officials.

The institute will be housed within the university’s social science division, and will support interdisciplinary research into kindness in biology, psychology, evolutionary science, communications, economics and other specialties.

Although kindness may not seem at first glance like a typical academic topic, researchers say it can and must be studied with the same tools used to understand all other aspects of human behavior.

“What we mean by kindness are the thoughts, feelings and beliefs that motivate actions intended to benefit another party,” said Daniel Fessler, Ph.D., a UCLA anthropologist named as the new institute’s faculty director. “In so many areas today, kindness or its absence is very relevant. People don't always make decisions on a rational basis, so we need to understand how we can help people make decisions that are in their own interests and the interests of society, collectively.”

Commonly held perceptions and narratives that influence public debate in America and elsewhere, such as an “us-versus-them” mentality, winner-take-all behaviors, and xenophobia, said Fessler, are fundamentally problems of kindness.

“We're all in the same lifeboat, and having a fight in the lifeboat is a very bad idea,” said Fessler. “We are all interconnected now.”

Real-World Applications

The institute will also seek to translate research into real-world applications. Unlike typical academic operations, the institute will work to engage the public, particularly in Los Angeles, applying its research to address matters of public policy, such as homelessness.

As is increasingly seen in other areas of academia, the kindness institute is structured to focus researchers from across the campus on timely questions. “Many researchers at UCLA are working on topics that relate to kindness, and the institute will serve as a structure that allows people to come together across disciplinary boundaries to focus on these complex issues and important questions,” said Darnell Hunt, Ph.D., the dean of UCLA’s Social Sciences division, where the institute will reside. The institute aims to announce RFPs in the coming months and will begin offering courses at UCLA this year.

The UCLA Bedari Kindness Institute is novel, but it’s not completely alone. Stanford Medicine houses the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, and we recently wrote about a $100 million gift from South Dakota banking and credit billionaire T. Denny Sanford to the University of California San Diego to establish the Sanford Institute for Empathy and Compassion. While those institutes will focus on compassion primarily within the medical profession, the UCLA initiative will work on a broader canvas.