Using Kindness to Grow Healthy Online Communities

 In Social Networks

For every 28 articles published on bullying, only one is published on kindness. Does this strike you as odd?

It gets weirder. Let’s operate on the assumption that kindness is the antithesis of bullying. Studies have found that friendly teachers and welcoming learning environments result in less bullying.

Makes sense. And yet, when it comes to changing bad behavior, the bulk of our efforts continue to focus on the problem instead of the solution. Are we going about this all wrong?

A lot of very smart people have been asking themselves that very question. Allow me to introduce you to a little-known, up-and-coming field of psychology called — you guessed it…

Positive psychology

Positive psychology studies the strengths that enable human beings to thrive. Psychology has traditionally focused on human suffering while treating mental illness. Positive psychology sets itself apart by studying what makes life worth living. Instead of focusing solely on healing psychological damage, it strives to cultivate the conditions that enable us to live fulfilling and meaningful lives.

Consider healthy food. Eating well is a proactive approach to looking after one’s health. In the same way, when we foster positivity we take a proactive approach to making the world a better place.

An interesting shift is occurring in schools right now. Instead of “What is wrong that needs fixing?” educators are asking themselves “How can we nurture the strengths and attributes of students?” This shift is in response to the success that positive psychology has had in reducing negative affect, increasing life satisfaction, and fostering creative thinking. If kindness becomes the standard, all anyone has to do is continue the trend. Those who are shown kindness are more likely to be kind to others. It’s an old concept — pay it forward — and it works.

You can see why it’s important that we study not only the phenomenon of bullying but also its counterpart, kindness… perhaps with the 28:1 ratio reversed. When we focus on the positive, we shift the conversation from the negative.

Imagine putting this into practice in your community. What would it look like?

Saving the world with kindness

“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him.” — Mahatma Gandhi

If you watch closely, you might notice you or a friend subtly imitating a conversation partner. In psychology, this is called “mirroring,” the subconscious tendency for one person to imitate the body language, speech pattern, or attitude of another. Copying another person’s nonverbal signals creates connection and builds rapport.

The Golden Rule encourages us to treat others as we would like to be treated. If we treat others with kindness and respect, is it fair to expect that they respond in kind (see what I did there)?

For most people, the answer is yes. It’s in our nature to imitate. Imitation allows for the transfer of cultural artifacts like customs, behaviors, and traditions, and plays a huge role in the creation of culture.

Kindness has the potential to catch fire in our culture and shape our communities for the better, but it has to start somewhere. Why not with you? And why not your community?

Polarization

The words “be kind” are a lot more effective than “do not bully others.” The “do not” is often lost in translation, and the message becomes “bully others.” Psychologists call this reactance theory. When someone feels that their freedom to choose is under threat, they can become motivated to do the opposite, no matter how irrational the choice might seem. Again, if we switch the message from the negative to the positive, people are far more likely to listen and respond. What if, as community managers, we rewarded our most positive users instead of only punishing our most negative users?

Of course, if ordering people to be kind always succeeded, we’d all be singing kumbaya around a campfire, and there would be no need for anyone to write a blog post about it.

To understand this better, let’s look at complementary and non-complementary behavior.

Breaking the cycle

“The self is not something ready-made, but something in continuous formation through choice of action.” — John Dewey, philosopher, psychologist, and educational theorist

Complementary behavior refers to our tendency to treat others as they treat us — the old Golden Rule. Sometimes, though, we are presented with situations that require unexpected reactions – what psychologists call non-complementary behavior. Non-complementary behavior doesn’t happen often because, simply put, it’s hard.

It’s instinct too: When someone makes you feel bad, are you ever inclined to make them feel good?

Well, that’s what makes non-complementary behavior so powerful and revolutionary. An episode of NPR’s podcast “Invisibilia” tells the story of a group of friends who were confronted by an armed robber in their backyard. No one at the party had cash. The robber now had to choose between leaving empty-handed or making good on his threat of violence. Tension grew until one of the women did something unexpected: she offered him a glass of wine.

It worked. The robber pocketed his gun and took the glass. The tension broke, and the situation was transformed. The end result? A highly improbable group hug.

Could you offer a glass of wine to the person holding a gun to your head? How committed are you to shaping a community that values kindness above all else?

Kindness is hard work. But as we’ve seen in study after study, and example after example, it’s worth it. Your community will be stronger for it.

How to contribute to a culture of kindness

“To achieve greatness, start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” — Arthur Ashe, tennis champion

The next time you are on the receiving end of somebody’s kindness, consider doing more than simply thanking them — instead, pay it forward. Give back a little kindness of your own to the community at large. Try implementing it in your online community. Reward your good users for positive behavior with an extra item. Encourage them to pay it forward.

Most of us strive to live in harmony with our community. The movement to perform random acts of kindness, while exemplary, isn’t necessarily the fastest way to build habits around kindness. It could be argued that acts of kindness are not random at all but in fact completely natural and inherent to the human spirit. Instead, it is the intentional act of following those impulses that require conscious cultivation — and some hard work.

Ask yourself the question — what does kindness in the community mean to me? How does it benefit the community as a whole, and how can I cultivate it?

As we’ve learned, when you focus on the solution instead of the problem, the results are extraordinary.

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