Feeling Connected Makes Us Kind

A study suggests that our social connections inspire altruism
January 30, 2020 Updated: January 30, 2020
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We all know that it feels good to feel connected to other people—indeed, research has even linked social connections to happiness, health, and longer life.

But one study suggests that our feelings of connection don’t just make us feel good; they also make us do good.

In the study, researchers tried a few different ways of making people feel connected to others, testing to see whether such feelings of “relatedness” motivated those people to perform kind, helpful or “pro-social” acts. Prior research has suggested that this sense of connection is one of three ingredients people need to really thrive in life; the other two are feeling capable of achieving their goals, known as “competence,” and feeling in control of their own actions and decisions, known as “autonomy.”

In one experiment, the researchers had participants read words associated with social connection (e.g., community, connected, relationship) and then asked them how much they intended to volunteer for a charity. The results show that people were more willing to volunteer for a charity after reading those words than they were after reading a series of other, neutral words (e.g., book, lamp, shoe).

They were also more likely to want to volunteer after reading the social connection words than after reading words that evoked autonomy (e.g., freedom, choice, preference) or competence (e.g., skilled, expert, competent).

In a second experiment, the researchers had participants write about a time that they felt a close bond with someone else, bringing to mind that feeling of connection. Then they asked how willing the participants were to perform five pro-social actions over the coming weeks, including giving money to charity and going out of their way to help a stranger in need.

Just thinking about their close connection boosted people’s altruistic impulses: After writing about their relationship, they showed a stronger desire to help others than they did after writing about feeling competent, autonomous, or just after answering some banal questions (e.g., “I think that the color blue looks great on most people”).

And it seems like these feelings of connection do more than encourage good intentions; they also spur positive actions. In a third and final experiment, participants either read words evoking social connection or read neutral words, just like in the first experiment. Afterward, they were given the chance to anonymously donate some of the money they earned for participating in the study to the British Red Cross, which they were told was working with the researchers.

Nearly half of the participants who had been reminded of their social connections donated to the Red Cross, whereas fewer than 20 percent of the other participants did.

Although previous studies have suggested a link between altruism and feelings of relatedness, this study is the first to find that inducing those feelings can directly cause people to be kinder and more generous.

According to the researchers, their findings highlight the basic human need for belonging. In their paper, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, they point to other research showing that feeling socially connected reduces aggression, whereas feeling excluded increases aggression and reduces pro-social behaviors.

Taken together, they argue, these findings suggest that helping people connect with others benefits their own well-being and could benefit society as a whole. They call for more research to explore precisely how fostering social connections can boost pro-social behavior.

“Such research could promote simultaneously individual welfare and the welfare of others,” they write, “in a way that would challenge the assumption that there is some kind of conflict between the two.”

Nadine Lueras-Tramma is a Greater Good research assistant. This article was originally published on the Greater Good online magazine.