Kindness, Relationships and Wellbeing

This theme focusses on basic and applied research designed to illuminate the nature of kindness, its antecedents, and its consequences. This includes its behavioural manifestations, motivations and outcomes, and it focusses on both givers and recipients of kindness. This theme also seeks to uncover how kindness differs across contexts and the many factors that may influence when, how, and why kindness occurs. Another broad aim of this research is to identify how kindness is connected to our social relationships and wellbeing.


The Neuroscience of Charitable Giving

This project aims to understand the decision-making process behind donations to charity and which factors affect whether or not people decide to be kind. The project is led by doctoral Researcher Jo Cutler and supervised by Dr. Dan Campbell-Meiklejohn, and it forms part of the Social Decision Lab at the University of Sussex. By combining brain scanning, measures of physiological changes and psychology experiments, the project is gaining insight into motivations for donating. 

Findings from the fMRI study show that giving to others activates the reward network in the brain, even in situations with no opportunity for reciprocity. Read more about the warm glow of kindness.  


Selected publications:

Cutler, J., & Campbell-Meiklejohn, D. (2019) A comparative fMRI meta-analysis of altruistic and strategic decisions to give. NeuroImage, 184, 227-241. 

Citizen Aid: Why Are Ordinary People Founding Their Own Development Projects?

This project, led by Dr Anne-Meike Fechteris based on research funded by the Leverhulme Trust and is concerned with 'Citizen Aid'. The term 'Citizen Aid' broadly refers to small-scale development initiatives set up by individuals to support others. These citizen aid projects often operate on the margins of the more formal aid and development sector. The number of micro-organisations has risen dramatically in recent years, and many of them are run by people with no previous experience in development. 


Through fieldwork with a range of these initiatives in Cambodia, the project is asking what, if anything, makes citizen aid distinct from 'conventional' development. The study also aims to understand how initiatives that are fundamentally based on a person-to-person approach can be understood as forms of solidarity. Find out more in this article by Anne-Meike in The Conversation.


Selected publications:

Fechter, A-M. (2017). An excess of goodness? Volunteering among Aid professionals in Cambodia.South East Asia Research, 25(3), 268-283. 

Reading Fiction and Empathy 

This project includes a number of studies that are working to identify whether reading fiction can foster empathy and prosocial behaviours, such as kindness, in children. Research with adults shows that being a regular fiction reader increases positive social behaviour and empathy but there is a distinct lack of research with younger populations. 

Current studies include a six-month pilot project, led by Dr Helen Drew and supervised by Profs Jane OakhillAlan Garnham, and Robin Banerjee, designed to explore different ways we can measure the association between reading fiction and empathy. What kinds of text are important? Does it matter whether the child is engaged with the text? Are they reading lots of fiction already? We hope the findings from this pilot study will inform a larger project on fiction and empathy in children. 

Another study, led by Doctoral Researcher Jimena Rojas Bernal and supervised by Prof Robin Banerjee, uses ethnographic methods to explore how children’s reading relationships (with parents, peers, and teachers) involve an embodiment of emotion. This project is working closely with EmpathyLab, a new organisation working to harness the power of stories to build children’s empathy skills and to bring about an empathy revolution in homes, schools, and communities. 


Cognitive, Motivational and Socio-Contextual Factors in Everyday Kindness 

This project, conducted by Alessia Goglio and supervised by Prof. Robin Banerjee as part of the Junior Research Associate scheme 2018, used a mixed-methods approach to investigate the factors that influence people’s intentions to be kind. The findings show that people’s attitudes towards kindness and their perceived social norms regarding kindness predicted their intentions to be kind themselves. However, intentions to be kind were less reliant on personal attitudes in cases where social norms of kindness were perceived to be high. Qualitative focus groups also revealed a number of facilitators and barriers of kindness in the context of university life. For more information read Alessia's post on the School of Psychology blog. 


Kindness within Social Work Interaction

In a recent piece of researchProf. Michelle Lefevre and colleagues discuss how professionals draw on personal qualities such as warmth and being caring in order to build trust with young people at risk of child sexual exploitation. Vulnerable children's negative experiences erode their trust in others and make them less likely to engage with professional support and intervention. These findings suggest that kindness may be an important consideration with regard to social work interactions and should be a focus for future research. In her book Communicating and Engaging with Young People, Michelle emphasises how practitioners need to develop such personal qualities and emotional capacity so that they engage with children on a real person-to-person level. Children themselves say that when professionals relate to them as if they really care about them, then this makes a huge difference. 


Selected publications:

Lefevre, M., Hickle, K., Luckock, B. & Ruch, G. (2017). Building trust with children and young people at risk of Child Sexual Exploitation: the professional challenge. British Journal of Social Work47(8), 2456-2473. 


Lefevre, M. (2018). Communicating and Engaging with Children and Young People: Making a Difference. Bristol: The Policy Press, 2nd Edition.