Cooperation and Kindness Pooling resources and flourishing with honest connections BY: Troy Murphy |July 2016
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As fellow travelers on this planet, we have a responsibility to be kind. This is a personal belief—no authoritative edict proclaims unkindness a punishable crime. But many criminal acts are perpetrated because a lack of underlying kindness. Cooperation serves evolutionary purposes, kindness stems from the cooperative survival instincts, willingness to sacrifice personal gain to benefit someone else—providing lunch to the homeless, donating money to a charitable cause, or mowing your elderly neighbor’s lawn. Many scientists attribute the large human prefrontal cortex, perhaps, even the evolution of consciousness, as a biological response to the complex human interactions.
We assess facial expressions, words and actions, with great precision, and respond, maximizing personal and group benefits. Vulnerably approaching an enemy, without caution, could prove disastrous. This requires a keen sense of differentiating between and enemy and a friend, identifying dangers but remain alert to opportunities. We must calculate vast amounts of data to survive and flourish; we have a large prefrontal cortex to assist. Today improperly reading signals from the woman at the end of the bar may lead to a slap, but on the street, in a crime ridden neighborhood, errant assessing may be fatal. Social skills are essential for engendering in-group assistance. We must develop trust, loyalty, and show capacity to assist the group. We survive as a group. We are all connected; like it or not. Human progress over the last several millennia isn’t attributed to biological improvements but the effective use of the apparatus we already possess. Culture, knowledge, and skills accumulated, being passed down from generation to generation, learning from decades—even centuries—can be discovered within a few semesters of college.
Society works because of cooperation. As long as the majority works together, society maintains strength. Unethical groups in a majority may take advantage of their power. History provides grotesque examples of inhumanity. Groups must contend with oppressors from above, manipulating cooperative efforts while extracting precious energy from below while stingily hoarding resources; and parasites from below withdrawing resources but failing to contribute (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, The Evolving Self). The society strains to maintain balance. If too many pursue selfish aims (from the top or bottom), society collapses and people revolt.
Cooperation, however, can fail societies when it is exploited. The Stanley Milgram studies during the 1960’s illuminated some of the concerns. Volunteers willingly administer painful shocks with slight prodding from a white-coat authority figure to undercover experiment confederates. We must be cognitively aware of impulses to do as others wish, skeptically examining the effects and making an individual decision. Sometimes, we must make the difficult decision to oppose the status quo, going against the grain, refusing to cooperate with movements that violate our ethical standards. Simply stated, we must oppose inner motivations to get along.
Cooperation—a staple of social complexity and success—can have destructive consequences (Rwanda, the Third Reich, Khmer Rouge). On smaller and more personal scales, cooperation impacts our daily interactions. The social media boom of our time provides immediate feedback for group acceptance—or rejection. Sadly, suicides and depression have been tied to this new age wave of group pressure, mean teenagers (and sometimes their unscrupulous parents) join to bully others, not in an educated debate of ideals, but in group savagery over a weaker adversary. Cooperation—the evolutionary parent of kindness—exhibits destructive hatred.
"The society strains to maintain balance. If too many pursue selfish aims (from the top or bottom), society collapses and people revolt."
In many groups, individuality is blatantly discouraged. Expression of individuality weakens the strength of the group: together we stand; divided we fall. As if, we all must agree. “If you are right, I must be wrong.” Groups have always pressured, even brow beat, followers to submit individuality to the betterment of the group. Technology exposes the group mentality, suppressing individual expression—and rejection. A teenager may be ostracized for expressing individuality on-line.
Blind cooperation, giving to others, for benefits of united strength isn’t kindness. Our actions, appearing as kindness, to gain acceptance corrupts the pureness of the act. Actions only reveal character when viewed in the context of the underlying motivation. Courteous behavior may be motivated by fear or respect. Kind behavior may express independence or dependence. The context of the behavior reveals the character behind the action.
Politics is ripe with examples. A politician may court groups with promises of gifts, offering gestures of appreciation; but once the votes are tallied policies supported and personal histories reveal disdain not support. Voters should critically examine character before hanging hopes on the empty words of power hungry politician. They may present themselves as kind and cooperating friend to our aspirations but their allegiance may fall somewhere else.
Life complexity requires deeper investigation. Underlying motivations often are obscured; we fumble to unveil our own motivations—let alone a stranger’s. The internal push to action isn’t conscious. Most behaviors are the expression of complex mixtures of reasons—the biological drive to cooperate being one of them.
When examining the self, we often attribute positive character traits behind our actions; but when examining a foe, we are suspicious. We label their helpful acts as deeply sinister with darker motivations. During self-reflection, we must occasionally scrutinize personal behaviors for the hidden nasties, behind the seemingly kind action. Does our expression of kindness serve a selfish purpose? Do we give to unbalance the scale in a passive/aggressive attempt to manipulate? We need to take a closer look.
The desire to be appreciated is natural, not selfish. Appreciation signals acceptance to the soul, bolstering security—together we stand. But when we focus on appreciation, our kindness loses potency. The selfishness behind the behavior eventually is exposed. Paradoxically, we must diminish the drive for appreciation in order to achieve it. Singular vision of a single action with an expected response will fail. We need wider vision. We become kind, genuine concern for the welfare of others (compassion), and in return we will be appreciated.
A staple of healthy living is kindness, not just kind acts but kindness of character, not a shallow expression but a defining nature. Kindness requires a broad view of life, acknowledging individuality, and differences of purpose and motivation. We are kind because we love others and we love life. Blindness to others’ feelings limits our ability to be kind. Our self-oriented views overlook our impact on others. We act, oblivious to feelings hurt.
Characteristics must be carefully developed, not a possession, but a dynamic quality that expands and shrinks. Be patient, examine behaviors with openness. Reflect on your behaviors, curiously seek for hidden motivations. We must consciously consider the tender feelings of others by asking, “What is she feeling right now?” By directing attention to others, we train our minds to expand beyond the stingy borders of self; we invite greater empathy. Empathy that opens the door to compassion, and compassion for kindness—real kindness, the kindness that is born in the heart and lives in the soul.