Acts of kindness: explained

The eminent sociologist Erving Goffman suggested that life is a series of performances, in which we are all continually managing the impression we give other people.

As discussed in today’s The Atlantic, “If this is so, then public spaces function like a stage in the same way


that our own homes and living rooms do. Architecture, landscaping, the dimensions of the stage, and the other actors around us all offer cues about how we should perform and how we should treat one another.

“A man might urinate in a graffiti-covered alleyway, but he would not dream of doing so in the manicured mews outside an old folks’ home. He would be more likely to offer a kindness in an environment where he felt he was among family or friends, or being watched, than in some greasy back alley. In Goffman’s world, these are conscious, calculated responses to the stage setting. But recently we have learned that some of our social responses occur even without conscious consideration. Like other animals, we have evolved to assess risks and rewards in the landscapes around us unconsciously.

“The evolutionary biologists D. S. Wilson and Daniel O’Brien showed a group of nonresidents pictures of various streetscapes from Binghamton, New York. Some of those streets featured broken pavement, unkempt lawns, and dilapidated homes. Others featured crisp sidewalks and well-kept yards and homes. Then the volunteers were invited to play a game developed by experimental economists in which they were told that they would be trading money with someone from the neighborhood they had viewed. You probably already know how they behaved: the volunteers were much more trusting and generous when they believed they were facing off with someone from the tidier, well-kept neighborhood. You might consider this a logical response to clues about each neighborhood’s social culture—tidiness conveys that people respect social norms, for example. But even the quality of the pavement—which bore no real relationship at all to the trustworthiness of a street’s residents—influenced them.

“In fact, we regularly respond to our environment in ways that seem to bear little relation to conscious thought or logic. For example, while most of us agree that it would be foolish to let the temperature of our hands dictate how we should deal with strangers, lab experiments show that when people happen to be holding a hot drink rather than a cold one, they are more likely to trust strangers. Another found that people are much more helpful and generous when they step off a rising escalator than when they step off a descending escalator—in fact, ascending in any fashion seems to trigger nicer behavior.”

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