Is man kind?

The answer to this question really depends on your own experience. What have you witnessed in the world? Who do you surround yourself with? What kindness do you share on a daily basis?

Of course, there is no easy yes or no answer, but the question is one we are deeply moved by as we see kindness as the foundation of our Airbnb community. We enlisted the help of the experts to answer this question in a more meaningful way. Emiliana Simon-Thomas, Ph.D., the Science Director at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and Paul Piff, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology and Social Behavior at the University of California, Irvine conducted a study on our behalf to understand our social cynicism, how our views of human kindness can be altered, and how social media (yes, social media) may be a surprising solution to seeing more kindness in the world. Below is what they had to share.

What would you say if we asked whether your family and friends—the people you care about, work with, or just know—are mostly kind or unkind? Take a minute to think about it. Now imagine this follow-up question: What about people in general, that is, everyone in society? Do you think people are mostly kind, or unkind?

If you answered these two questions differently, you are not alone. In a recent survey conducted by Airbnb on thousands of people’s views about kindness in the US, the UK, and Australia, two-thirds said that most of the people they know are kind. But when asked about society in general, the proportion dropped to less than half; people were more likely to view society in general as unkind. Where is this social cynicism coming from?

Today, thanks in part to urban living, efficient travel, and magnificently increased connectivity, we’re exposed to ever-greater numbers of strangers, and a world of social information is, quite literally, at our fingertips. Could all this connectivity be exposing us to a biased picture of humankind—one that’s more negative than what we’re likely to experience face to face—that’s shaping how we see others in society?

Airbnb’s survey points in just this direction. Asked about the balance of positive to negative stories and posts they see online, most people reported too much negative; roughly half reported witnessing unkindness online at least once per week. A large number of people felt that seeing too much negativity online was causing a more cynical outlook on humanity. Asked whether levels of kindness or unkindness had changed in their lifetimes, 60% of the people chose “society has become more unkind.” This experience, that is, being exposed to too much negative compared to positive news, may be causing us to view humankind as less kind.

This social cynicism, though understandable, is misplaced. The latest findings in the social and biological sciences suggest that we are “ultra-social”—fundamentally cooperative, generous, and kind. Humans are equipped with biological systems dedicated to understanding, caring about and cooperating with others. Babies as young as 5 months old prefer kind others, and by fourteen months, they show joy in sharing, and spontaneously help others. Asked to split a resource between themselves and a stranger, people tend to choose to give between 40% and 50%—high levels of generosity considering that the stranger is typically anonymous and there are no repercussions for keeping everything. A recent report from the Charities Aid Foundation reported that in 2014, 2.3 billion people worldwide took the time to help a stranger within the past month. Overall, evidence points to kindness as a deeply ingrained characteristic of human nature.

Given the view that humankind is shifting for the worse, we believe that the very thing that may be fueling this cynicism—popular, online and social media—is also an integral part of the solution. More frequent encounters with positive stories about the kind things that people do, that uplift and inspire, and that remind us of people’s inherent goodness, would most certainly inform how commonplace we think such acts are in society. The more we encounter stories about human kindness, the more likely we are to view humans in general as kind—more closely to how we feel about the people we know.

There is another benefit to seeing more positive news stories, more often. Simply witnessing the virtuous behavior of others can make us more kind. For example, when a person watches a brief video of another person’s generous act, they themselves want to “become a better person” and they tend to offer more help to others. Other studies report that kindness and cooperative behaviors ‘cascade’ among social networks: when people behave kindly on social networks, others follow suit. The implication? Kindness is contagious: Witnessing the kindness of others, whether through face-to-face experiences or media, online or through social media channels, elevates us and inspires us, to be better people, more moral, and more kind.

The Airbnb survey suggests that our appetite for more positive news is actually quite strong: People overwhelmingly want more positive stories, and prefer reading positive over negative stories by a factor of 10 to 1. Online media and social networks are excellent vehicles for sharing and broadcasting stories of kindness—the level of access and immediacy they provide is unprecedented in human history. AirBnB’s Daily Kindness Bulletin might just be a perfect place for this, sharing stories from people all over the world meeting, connecting and growing fond of one another other, and beginning to steer the balance of too-much-negative to more true-to-life positive. Just as ripples spread from a stone dropped into water, stories of kindness spread, their effects reverberating through our communities, serving as a much-needed reminder that humankind, indeed, is kind.

Relevant research:

Narcissism is increasing, social trust is decreasing:

Kindness, elevation can inspire kindness:

Kindness is good for you:

Kindness can spread through networks:
Fowler & Christakis, 2010: Cooperative behavior cascades in human social networks