Thursday, January 17, 2019

I Asked 400 Undergrads to Perform 90 Minutes of Kindness for No Reward. Here's What Happened

Followers of this blog will recall my post from October 30, where I solicited ideas about a "Kindness Assignment" for my lower-division philosophy class "Evil". The assignment was to perform ninety minutes of kindness for one or more people, with no formal accountability or reward. I canceled one day of class to free up time for students to perform their act of kindness. I described the Kindness Assignment as "required", but I told them I would not be checking on or grading them in any way.

Here's the full text of the Kindness Assignment.

During the final exam, I gave students a single detached page, front and back, on which they could write about their experiences with the Kindness Assignment. The page was prominently marked as "optional". I said I would not grade their responses and would only view the responses after final grades were submitted, so that their reports would have no influence of any sort on their grades.

On the page, students could say what they did (if anything), what they learned (if anything), how they felt about the fact that there was no reward or accountability, how they felt about having spent 90 minutes that way, and how their thoughts about the assignment connected to course themes. I also asked students whether they thought I should give the Kindness Assignment again, and if so, what if anything they would recommend changing. Here's the full text of the response sheet.

Three hundred and ninety-eight students took the final exam. Of these, 150 (38%) wrote something on the Kindness Assignment response sheet. It was a long and difficult exam, and since responding was optional and not for credit, some students who completed the Kindness Assignment may not have submitted a response. I assume that many or most of the non-submitters did not complete the assignment. Reviewing the responses, I estimate that 20% of the students who submitted a response said that they did not perform the assignment. Thus, approximately 120 students performed the Kindness Assignment and chose to tell me about their experience.

Understandably, in the context of an exam, only a minority of students took the time to answer all eight questions on the two-page response sheet. Some just gave a brief summary of what they did. Others praised or criticized the assignment without detailing what they did.

Responses to "What, if anything, did you do for the Kindness Assignment?"

Among the approximately 20% who said they didn't complete the Kindness Assignment, a substantial minority said they had planned to do so but forgot or were prevented. Others said that with no reward or accountability, they didn't feel motivated to do it.

Among those who reported completing the assignment, about 25% chose to spend the time helping a friend or family member with chores, about 25% chose to spend the time in a unusually meaningful or thoughtful personal interaction with a family member, about 25% helped strangers with chores or gifts (esp. homeless people or the elderly, sometimes through an organization), and the rest did a variety of other things.

One student bought five extra-large pizzas and shared them with people on Skid Row, which he described as "a really humbling experience.... Seeing people who were down on their luck cry/smile over some warm food really impacted me. Not sure how to succinctly phrase this, but it showed me a good and kind side of humanity that I often have trouble seeing."

Among students who interacted meaningfully with family:

  • One decided to dedicate the whole weekend to her family and "learned that I needed to re-evaluate my priorities.... I was working and making money... and in a way I was becoming greedy." She concluded "It's sad that it took an assignment... for me to realize this."
  • Another took her niece, who she usually ignores, out for ice cream, and said she came to appreciate that "little kids... are the nicest types of human beings."
  • Another student had a long, personal phone call with his stepfather, from whom he normally felt emotionally estranged, and said he finally realized that his stepfather wasn't really a bad person.
  • Still another "decided on actually listening to my parents about their issues & problems. Each of them had a curious look and asked where all of this had come from. I told them all about the course.... I could even see my dad tearing up while talking. I bet it's from not just having a heart to heart talk in who knows how long but also with his own son for I think the first time."
  • One student, saying he was inspired by Peter Singer's work on charitable giving gave $5000 (!) to an acquaintance in financial need.

    Responses to "What, if anything, did you learn from doing the Kindness Assignment?

    Answers to this question varied considerably. Maybe 20% of respondents said they learned nothing. Maybe half of respondents said something about learning how kindness can be pleasurable both for the giver and receiver. Some who had especially moving experiences said that they learned something important about people close to them, or about their own values, or about the kindness of humanity.

    Several students said that they learned, from the fact that they didn't complete the assignment, that they weren't much motivated to be kind without the benefit of some further reward.

    Responses to "How do you feel about the fact that there is no formal accountability or reward for completing this assignment?"

    For this question I coded responses as pro, con, or mixed/ambiguous. Thirty-four out of 78 (44%) of respondents were pro. They offered a variety of justifications, including (a.) having no tangible reward ensures that the kindness is authentic rather than forced; (b.) it allows students who are introverted or otherwise not disposed to do the assignment the opportunity to decline to participate without penalty; and (c.) it led them to think about whether they or other people would really be willing to go out of their way to be kind for ninety minutes without any tangible benefit.

    Ten out of 78 (13%) were con. When they offered a reason, it was generally that people wouldn't be sufficiently motivated without reward.

    The remainder, also 34/78 (44%), were ambiguous or mixed. Most of these said they "didn't mind" not receiving reward or that it "didn't matter" to them that there was no reward.

    Responses to "How do you feel about having spent ninety minutes in this way?"

    The majority of respondents reported feeling good about having done the assignment: 53/70 (76%). Only a few felt negative about it: 6/70 (9%). One student, for example, who offered to clean a friend's dorm room ended up feeling taken advantage of, especially after other friends started asking for their rooms to be cleaned too. The remainder were mixed or ambiguous 11/70 (16%).

    Unfortunately, the student who gave the $5000 expressed mixed emotions at having given so much, saying that "I can feel my soul feel happy about this" but "looking at my bank account, I am not happy. In fact, close to very sad/depressed." He recommended that in the future I suggest that students not give money.

    This student happened to be among the several students in the course I had come to know personally. I emailed him, asking if he's doing okay, and inviting him to discuss his experience further if he wants. After a brief exchange, he consented to my sharing his experience with others, so that others might learn from it.

    Singer argues that we should give away all of the money that we would otherwise spend on luxuries. My impression is that few students who read Singer on this topic are convinced by his arguments (I have opinion survey data to support this claim), and that among the few who do decide to give, almost all give well within their means, without regret.

    However, once in a rare while, people probably are inspired to radical sacrificial actions by reading the ethics texts that we philosophy professors assign. I tend to forget that this can be a consequence of teaching ethical views like Singer's. Arguably, as a teacher I have partial responsibility for such consequences, perhaps especially for students who are still in their teens.

    Responses to "Should the professor give a version of the Kindness Assignment in the future?"

    The large majority who responded -- 54 out of 63 (86%) -- answered yes, some with big exclamation marks and high enthusiasm. Only four (6%) answered no and 5 (8%) were mixed or ambiguous.

    Recommendations for changes to the assignment.

    Many students said the assignment was excellent as-is, but a substantial minority recommended one change or another. The most common recommendations were to offer credit for it (10 students), to clarify better what sorts of kind actions I had in mind (7 students), and to shorten the length of the act of kindness (6 students).

    Next time, I probably will better clarify the kind of actions I have in mind -- and I will suggest that students not give money.

    [image source]


    howard b said...

    I think all of us are constrained by the line of our routine and the topology of our ordinary relationships.
    This is a corollary of the Milgram effetc- people won't do things differently to counter conformity unless ordered.
    If you required students to do nice things and good deeds, then you'd be in trouble, but you might get results

    P.D. said...

    I would suggest offering a way to give feedback outside of the final exam. For students who found the experience emotional, recounting it in the same session as taking the final might be distracting. And I suspect there were some students who did the activity but didn't provide feedback, because they were thinking about the final.

    Eric Schwitzgebel said...

    Thanks for the comments howard and PD. I agree on both counts. I'm inclined to set up a questionnaire that students can complete online if they prefer not to do so during the final exam.

    Paul Coogan said...

    I am reminded of an "assignment" from AA/Alanon to "be helpful or kind to someone and tell no one". The objective is to remove the ego from the equation as part of recovery. Thanks for building this assignment, I am sure it bettered 100% of the students.

    Rabach Nicholas, Kenya said...

    I am no professor, but I have a keen interest in the subject. I guess what prompted you to give the test is your quest to solve the age old question: What inspires people to 'do good?
    If perhaps you asked your students to first define what they each consider to be a good deed & who deserves it before releasing them to go to the field, you would have increased the responses. I am following

    Anonymous said...

    Eric – Did any of the students who participated mention religious motivations, identities, or implications? I know your experiment is far from producing a scientifically rigorous sampling, but it would be interesting to get a sense of where this fits into the larger debate over the necessity of religion for compelling people toward moral behavior.

    Marc Grabowski said...

    I follow from Australia. I have a lay interest in philosophy, and I've come to follow your blog after hearing you being interviewed on the Philosophy Bites podcast some months ago.
    Just wanted to say, I feel for your student who gave the $5000 in one hit! But also, well done. That's a lot of money to gift, especially for a student.
    One way to alleviate some of that pain/regret, the student could view it as a lump sum payment to cover the rest of their working life. Over a 40 year career: $5000/40=$125 per year. Obviously the student might still give in future, but even at $125 per year, you've still given a substantial amount to charity - maybe even more than what the average person is capable/willing to give?
    Anyway, very interesting experiment and results, thanks Eric!

    Eric Schwitzgebel said...

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments, folks!

    Rabach: That's an interesting suggestion. I'll give it some thought for next time.

    Anon: Very few did, actually. Maybe religion wasn't much on their minds; or maybe it was, but they are unused to speaking about it in class.

    Marc: That might be a helpful way for him to think about it. Thanks!

    Callan S. said...

    If Singer says to give away what you would have spent on luxuries, either that guy was going to spend 5k on luxuries or he wasn't doing what Singer said. It's also very odd in terms of personal responsibility - if you're running an activity then you have to instruct people to be sensible during it?

    Overall though given there are basically incentives against doing anything, it seems a fairly large outcome.

    But what overall conclusion do we draw from it? Is it an exercise in developing open questions - the student is left unsure what the whole thing meant, like encountering a book with a missing final chapter?

    What self reflection did students conduct during it (or even during not doing it)? Or did they just do it (or not do it) without reflecting much on why they were doing it/were instructed to do it (even if as an option) and did it/didn't do it?