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Small acts of kindness matter more than you think

Text a friend, write a thank-you note, compliment a stranger — people appreciate these gestures.

Allie Volpe is a senior reporter at Vox covering mental health, relationships, wellness, money, home life, and work through the lens of meaningful self-improvement.

Think about the last time someone showed you a small token of appreciation. Perhaps a stranger gave you a compliment, or maybe you got a check-in text from a friend, or received a particularly heartfelt thank-you note from a mentee. Chances are, that tiny act brightened your day. After all, there’s a delight in knowing you were on someone’s mind for even a brief moment.

When the roles are reversed, though, you might often psych yourself out of performing these simple bids, convincing yourself you must initiate a follow-up after that initial text or that stranger will rebuff your kind remark.

“I think people felt like there was an obligation,” says Gillian Sandstrom, a senior lecturer in the psychology of kindness at the University of Sussex, who is currently studying people’s reluctance to reach out to friends with whom they’d lost touch. “There is no commitment. I can just have a one-off thing, walk away. There’s something really beautiful about that.”

Research suggests, across multiple studies, that people have overwhelmingly similar impulses to not do the nice thing: They underestimate how much other people value the reach-out, the random act of kindness. These seemingly minor deeds are appreciated, though. Turning down the naysaying voice in your head allows for more opportunities to show warmth to those around you.

We all underestimate how much others appreciate us

Since humans lack the ability to read minds, we simply guess at what other people think of us. These hypotheses are informed by how people perceive themselves, and not by real-world feedback and criticism from those they’ve actually interacted with. These self-perceptions are often marred by negativity; when recalling past social interactions, people worried their jokes were subpar or that their conversation partner found them uncool. “We assume other people are thinking what we’re thinking,” Sandstrom says.

Psychologist and friendship expert Marisa Franco credits these pessimistic assumptions to a concept called the negativity bias, wherein people remember negative events and feelings more acutely than positive ones. As a result, people tend to avoid socially risky behaviors — like telling a stranger on the subway you like their shoes — in order to avoid potential awkwardness. “Across the board,” says Franco, who is also the author of Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make — and Keep — Friends, “in pretty much every act of connection, we tend to underestimate how much people will be receptive to our overtures in connection.” Of course, there will be instances where a stranger, in particular, will not be amenable to your overtures (this isn’t permission to harass people on the street), but your intention should be to brighten someone’s day without worrying what they think about you.

The persistent underestimation of how much others enjoy our company is known as the liking gap, dubbed by Sandstrom and her colleagues in a 2018 paper. Through both short conversations and long ones, with both strangers and acquaintances, study participants consistently misjudged how much their conversation partners liked them. (Participants took surveys after each chat and reported that they liked their conversation partner much more than they perceived their conversation partner to have liked them.)

This mismatch of appreciation extends to other domains, such as writing thank-you notes, sending text messages, and gifting a cup of hot chocolate. “Being kind to other people, doing nice things for others — those are the activities that tend to improve our well-being,” says Amit Kumar, assistant professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. “Folks have lots of opportunities for acting in these other-oriented ways that they don’t take advantage of. I think the interesting question then becomes, well, why don’t people act in ways that are likely to make them feel better?”

Why we don’t do nice things for others

If small, kind gestures have a positive impact on the receiver’s day, why are people so hesitant to do them? According to Kumar, who has studied the positive impact of acts of kindness and gratitude letters, we don’t often recognize the power of these benevolent acts on others. Instead of focusing on the warm intention (literally and figuratively) associated with buying a stranger a cup of coffee, we fixate on the value of what we’re presenting. “When you’re doing something for someone else, you’re thinking about the thing that you’re giving and what its value is,” Kumar says. Recipients, on the other hand, are “thinking about the warmth associated with the fact that it was given to them by another person out of kindness.”

Surprise also generates appreciation from recipients, says Peggy Liu, the Ben L. Fryrear Chair in Marketing and an associate professor of business administration at the University of Pittsburgh Katz Graduate School of Business. In her recent studies demonstrating the power of a brief check-in text to friends, Liu found that when recipients weren’t expecting to hear from the initiator — maybe it had been a few months since they last spoke — they appreciated that someone thought about them enough to reach out. While Liu did not identify what prevented would-be initiators from sending the text, she suspects thoughts of worry held them back: Is my friend going to think it’s strange that I just reached out? Does what I wrote to them sound okay?

There is also an inherent anxiety that something as simple as a text must come with strings attached: a phone call, a coffee date. In Sandstrom’s as-of-yet unpublished study about reconnecting with friends, participants often didn’t reach out because they lacked the time to commit to the relationship beyond the initial message. During a time when so many are stretched thin, just the small act itself is enough. “A brief text,” Liu says, “doesn’t create that much obligation in the other person and allows the other person to decide when and how they want to respond.”

That nagging negativity bias creates doubt. There will inevitably be times when our attempts at conversations with strangers fall flat — and those memories will prevail over those of successful acts of kindness. Still, pursuing these bids with regularity helps break the assumption that they won’t be appreciated. With each positive interaction, anxiety is replaced by joy.

In other words, don’t fixate on picking out the best flowers for your partner or fear a distant friend will criticize your grammar in a text message. The gesture itself is more consequential than the content — because it’s always worth it to do the nice thing rather than to avoid doing it out of fear of rejection or awkwardness. In his studies, not only did the recipients feel appreciated, but the do-gooders reported feeling happy, too, Kumar says.

Being vulnerable yourself goes a long way

To avoid talking ourselves out of performing friendly exploits, it’s helpful to catch ourselves in the act of second-guessing and remind ourselves how lovely it felt when we were on the receiving end of, say, a check-in text, Liu says. No one criticizes a kind note they weren’t expecting.

These small gestures can be just that: a quick chat, a thinking-of-you message, gifting unused public transit fare to a stranger. “I’m a working mom,” Liu says. “It can be hard to actually have a more lengthy get-together. So I think that’s partly why these brief reach outs are so appreciated.”

The consequence of ignoring our impulse to reach out is missed opportunities for social connection. Instead, says Franco, assume people like you. “When people are told that they’re going into a group and [will] be accepted, they become warmer, friendlier, and more open,” she says. “Whereas people that have rejection sensitivity, who tend to assume they’ll be rejected, they tend to become cold and withdrawn, thus rejecting other people and getting rejected back.”

Opt for a touch of optimism, put yourself out there, and, Franco says, consider potential rejection as the price worth paying for meaningful interactions.

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