Social mindfulness matters – for all of us. What may sound like an esoteric new year’s resolution is actually at the core of the social fabric of our society, new behavioural research shows

This research tried to address some of the biggest challenges in my field of social psychology and behavioural science: connecting individual behaviours with large scale political and societal developments while using rigorous experimental research methods. It’s by no means perfect, but some of the best we can offer in behavioural research and it has important implications for policy makers and educators alike.

Social mindfulness is defined as everyday acts of kindness towards strangers which have little or no cost to the individual but matter greatly for the collective. Social mindfulness measures the extent to which someone is considering the impact of one’s own behaviour on others. It includes small everyday things like deciding to wear a face mask when shopping to protect others from Covid-19 or not dropping litter in the park to keep it clean for other park users.

It’s something all of us have the capacity and ability to do – but nonetheless our research found large differences between people in 31 countries on all six continents. Crucially, social mindfulness is about kindness towards strangers, not towards family and friends already close to us, but towards the strangers who live in the same society. In total, 8,354 young people between 18 and 25 years old from modern, industrialised, and digitalised societies from around the world took part. These young adults represent the future of the 31 countries they live in. How socially mindful they are matters.

Of the 31 countries, the highest level of social mindfulness was found in Japan and the lowest in Indonesia, with the UK ranking 12 th out of 31, behind Germany and ahead of France. Some of the most intriguing differences between countries we found are that higher social mindfulness is associated with:

  • higher levels of parental education of participants,

  • less hierarchical structures in society,

  • higher economic prosperity (in GDP and gross national income per capita),

  • higher adherence to the rule of law,

  • less income inequality (Gini index),

  • lower reported religiousness, and

  • higher environmental protection (Environmental Performance Index EPI)

While our data does not allow to establish causality between these national differences and individual mindfulness behaviours, and interactions between the different factors are likely to be complex, the empirical basis of our study is sound. It does show patterns of opportunity and avenues of influence to make our society more mindful, more sustainable, less hierarchical, more equal and better informed.

So, at the risk of sounding cheesy: When have you last shown kindness towards a stranger, considered their needs and changed your behaviour, at little or no cost to yourself? And: in your professional capacity as policy maker or educator, where can you contribute to make life a bit more equal, a bit less bureaucratic and hierarchical, a bit fairer and more transparent, a bit more sustainable and thus help build the foundations for social mindfulness on all levels? Not as a one-off big resolution for 2022, but every day and every hour of the day.

After all – it is many many small acts of kindness that make the big difference in the end!

The full results of the research were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) and are freely available, including all the data sets. I have contributed the London sample of 18 to 25 year olds to this study, and to the overall design, analysis and writing of the paper.

Karin Moser, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London South Bank University, is a highly published and internationally recognised academic in the fields of human cooperation, communication, and decision-making research. An overview of her research and its impact, including publications, collaborations and media appearances can be found at The Moser Lab.


Posted 11/01/2022 10:09

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