The Kindness of Strangers

Why do people donate their blood to strangers, travel on humanitarian missions to places such as Haiti and the Sudan, and risk their lives to fight injustice elsewhere? The explanation comes from intelligence, imagination, and culture – especially the use of language – which can motivate us to think of distant people as if they were friends and family.

NEW HAVEN – I admit that it is an unusual way to see the world, but, when reading the newspaper, I am constantly struck by the extent of human kindness. The newest bit of good news comes from The Center on Wealth and Philanthropy at Boston College, which estimates that Americans will give about $250 billion in individual charitable contributions in 2010, up several billion from last year.

People donate their blood to strangers, travel on humanitarian missions to places such as Haiti and the Sudan, and risk their lives to fight injustice elsewhere. And New Yorkers have grown accustomed to reading about subway heroes – brave souls who leap onto the tracks to rescue fallen commuters and then often slip away, uncomfortable with attention or credit.

As a psychologist, I am fascinated by the origin and consequences of such kindness. Some of our moral sentiments and moral motivations are the product of biological evolution. This accounts for why we are often kind to our own flesh and blood – those who share our genes. It also can explain our moral attachments to those we see as members of our immediate tribe.

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