Kindness Dominos

The domino effectI did an online interview with CNN recently that was all about kindness.

One of the questions they asked me was about the ripple effect of kindness and what that means for us. Since I was very young I’ve had a strong belief that a small group of people with compassion and kindness in their hearts can change the world.

Some of that I picked up just by watching my Mum. She has always been the kindest person I know and I used to see how her kindness would bring a smile to people’s faces, and then I’d notice how it would effect them enough that they would spread their good cheer onto others.

I guess I was always destined to be involved in science in one way or another. 🙂

As a child, I just intuitively held this idea that if more people were kind we could make the world happier. As an adult, one of my driving forces has been to find compelling scientific evidence that shows us just how amazing we all are and how we really can change the world through kindness.

Think of the ripple effect of kindness like dominos all lined up. If you push the first domino it sets off a chain reaction and the rest of them fall down too. Acts of kindness are like that. When you are kind to one person, they really do carry your good act forwards.

It’s funny how we look for scientific evidence of this kind of thing to confirm its truth when the truth is, in fact, right in front of you, in the laboratory of your own life.

How do you feel when someone helps you out of a sticky situation? Relief, perhaps? Happy? Upbeat? It’s most likely a positive feeling of some kind. You’ll feel in good cheer. And it’s almost certain that you pass that good cheer on.

I’d hazard a guess that many of you reading this right now, when someone has helped you out, have helped someone else out shortly afterwards.

I believe that we’re wired for kindness. It’s embedded in the human genome, this tendency to care for each other, to look out for each other, to help make life that little bit more comfortable for each other. Yes, there are always exceptions. We can also be selfish. We can be both things. But I’d say that it’s mostly life experiences, social environment, and stress that cloud our natural tendencies to be kind.

Elizabeth, my partner, once pointed out to me as our flight took off on a very cloudy day, that eventually the plane will rise above the clouds to a place where the sun always shines. She was also making reference to a conversation we’d had about kindness and whether people are naturally warm-hearted or not. We agreed that storm clouds can obscure people’s natural self. They have certainly obscured my natural self at different, difficult times in my life. Perhaps the challenge we all face at various times it to see through these clouds and notice the real person inside, just as if we’d hope that others could extend the same to us when we’re not quite ourselves.

I’ve noticed that when I do this, quite often the person swiftly changes their behavior. It’s like you tease another aspect out of them just by noticing what’s on the inside.

My friend David Hayman (The Scottish actor) comically put it another way. It was in reference to someone who worked in the charity office of ‘Spirit Aid Foundation’, a charity that David & I and a few other friends co-founded back in 2001. The girls in the office had described this person as a ‘chaos agent’, someone who seemed to bring chaos and conflict everywhere he went. I had bought into this description one day when I observed some emotional carnage in the office.

David immediately set me straight and instructed me that I was to remind myself that this person was, indeed, an angel of God. I held my head in shame as I realized how I’d lost my own compassionate center of focus, before David added, “He’s just cleverly disguised as an a**hole.”

The question is, though, which part are you willing to see when you are confronted by such an ‘angel’? Because the part you focus on is the part that you’ll get most of.

I’m not suggesting that everything will be healed by this simple shift of focus. Let’s have a little common sense. But I am saying that there are far more times than you’d think that such a shift in focus can, and will, make a positive difference.

You can be a kindness domino without actually having physically done anything, just by changing your mind.

You can also be a kindness domino as you help those in need around you, or carry out small acts of kindness throughout your day. And I can guarantee that with each kind act you do, even those that seem simple and almost insignificant to you, many other dominos will fall and you’ll never even know.

The repercussions of each act of kindness travel far and wide; multiple lives can be touched from what started as a simple heartfelt compliment, or a small helping hand, or even for the price of a cup of coffee.

Every day of our lives gives us numerous opportunities to be the first domino. Please don’t underestimate how many dominos fall after you help someone out.

We each make positive waves in the world every day! We just generally don’t notice. So take a breath, straighten yourself up, then go out and change the world.



If you’d like to learn more about Spirit Aid Foundation, or even make a donation to help with the humanitarian work, then please visit the website,  Spirit Aid commits 100% of all donations to humanitarian aid.

How Video Games Affect Empathy

One of the things I most enjoyed over the holiday period when I was playing on the Nintendo Wii with family members. I did some super-high scoring on bowling. Whoopeee…. I also had some long slugging-it-out tennis matches with my nephew Jake, played a few rounds of golf, and danced on ‘Just Dance’ with my mum.

I think these kinds of games help us on so many ways. Judging by the aches and pains in my arms the morning after the first night’s gaming, I felt like I’d done some serious exercise. They also help with hand-eye coordination, and many games are good for brain development.

The other side of gaming, though, is playing violent video games where we maim our opponents. A number of studies on children, teenagers, and college students show that these kinds of games can affect behaviour, making the players more aggressive and less empathetic in the short and long-term.

In one study, 160 male and 160 female college students played either a violent or non-violent game for 20 minutes. When they were finished, the researchers staged a fake fight outside the room where two actors pretended to fight. One of them knocked the other to the ground and as the person struggled to get up, the victor strode off, leaving the person in pain and unable to stand up.

The point of the study was, would the gamers go outside the room and help the person to their feet, and would the type of game they played have any bearing on how long it would take them to offer help?

It did. The average time it took the players of the non-violent games to help was 16.2 seconds. But the average time it took the players of the violent games to help was 1 minute 13.3 seconds – a substantial difference.

Studies of these kind suggest that playing violent video games can affect prosocial behaviour, that is our willingness to show helping behaviour to benefit someone or society, and dampens empathy. But not everyone is affected the same.

Before the era of modern real-life graphics I played hours of games in the 80s when I was a teenager, some of them violent, but I never became violent.

It is highly likely that a person’s social background and early upbringing will affect how much they are affected by violent video games. Children and teenagers living in a warm, generally positive emotional environment, are probably more immune to the effects than those who live in socially or emotionally deprived areas without the buffer of positive emotional support around them to counteract the aggressive effects.

The number of hours played on a regular basis also has an effect. Children who play a lot of hours of violent games tend to show the most aggression. Other studies, though, suggest that the effects are short-lived. But short-lived or not, some children are affected.

So what do we do? As my elder sister and mother of two of my nephews suggests, it’s up to the parents to monitor the kinds of games their children play and how much they play them.

Any maybe software developers could create more games that have a positive impact on prosocial behaviour, inspiring children with ideas of kindness and empathy, and the gaming companies can employ clever marketing people to popularise them, just as we’re seeing with games for the Wii. More please..!



B. J. Buchman and C. A. Anderson, ‘Comfortably numb: desensitizing effects of violent media on helping others’, Psychological Science, 2009, 20(3), 273-7

A number of scientific studies on media contagion are described in, David R Hamilton PhD, ‘The Contagious Power of Thinking’, Hay House UK, London, 2011. See chapter 4, ‘Contagion from Video Games’.


How Kindness is Contagious

hands held in a circleI’ve written, and I speak a lot, about how we are contagious, although not in the usual sense of the word where we catch the cold from each other, but in how our emotions are contagious.

Social network research shows that if you feel happy, for instance, you not only infect your friends with happiness, but you also infect your friends’ friends and even your friends’ friends’ friends – out to a radius of three social steps. This is partly facilitated through mirror neurons, specialised cells in the brain that mirror our physical expressions of emotion.

But I set out to research this field because I wanted to see if I could find evidence to support the idea that a small group of people with compassion and kindness in their hearts could change the world. I wanted to know, specifically, if kindness is contagious.

To me it is pretty obvious. If someone does something kind for you, you feel better and are more likely to help out someone else. So that person’s kindness has been contagious in that it has infected you. Similarly, each time you do something kind for anyone, whether it’s a family member, friend or a stranger, your kindness is also contagious. Please know that it doesn’t stop with that person.

As you go about the rest of your day, repercussions of your kind behaviour continue to ripple on, just as a pebble dropped in a pond creates waves that lift a lily pad at the other side of the pond.

I believe that kindness is contagious in three ways. The first is that we feel elevated when someone helps us. We’re on the crest of an emotional wave for a short time and from this state we feel inspired to help other people.

Depending upon the situation, we might also feel relieved when someone helps us, especially if the situation we’re in is stressful. This reduces the stress or worry and we feel a surge of relief. Stress and worry often obstruct our real nature, which contains strong undercurrents of compassion and kindness. When stress goes away and is replaced with a feeling of relief, we’re more likely to act on opportunities to help others.

The third way is that when we see someone being kind, something inside tells us that this is what we should be doing and so we are inspired by the observation of another’s kind behaviour. This is called social contagion.

Kindness is natural to us. It’s odd, but much business has traditionally been done based on the mistaken idea that humans are inherently selfish and look out only for themselves. This has played a role in establishing the competition business model and also made it OK to gain at the expense of another’s loss. This, in my opinion, has played a big role in the economic challenges that face us now.

But actually, what’s natural to us is cooperating with each other, working together, and showing heaps of compassion and kindness. Our genetic ancestors survived hundreds of thousands of years because they learned to work together and to help each other. They thrived because they cared when someone was hurt and because they helped each other. We are here today because they learned that the best way to thrive as a species was to be kind.

And we can see the genetic wiring quite clearly today. Oxytocin is a hormone heavily involved in empathy, compassion and kind behaviour. Kindness creates emotional bonds, which elevate oxytocin levels. Studies show that there are 15 variants, or ‘colours’, in just a small section of the oxytocin receptor gene (that’s the gene that produces the sites on the cells that oxytocin binds to). Those with a lighter shade, so to speak, tend to show more kind behaviour, whereas those with a darker shade are less likely to help others. It is evidence like this that confirms, scientifically, that being kind is a natural thing in us, that the tendency has a strong genetic component. We are not wired to be selfish. We are wired to be kind.

Thus, the solution for the world economy is not in more competition – being bigger, better, and stronger than everyone else – but in more cooperation, just like the solutions to many of our own challenges in our lives lies in cooperation. The seeds of the path ahead lie in kindness towards one another because cooperation builds upon kindness. We need to extend our hands to others.

And just how contagious is kindness? Well, just like emotions, a Harvard study found that kindness also affects our friends, our friends’ friends, and our friends’ friends’ friends. Kindness ripples out to a radius of three social steps.

The research, led by Professor Nicholas Christakis, asked volunteers to play a business game known as the ‘Public Goods’ game, where each person has to put money into a public pot to benefit the community. When one person made a larger donation into the public pot it caused some of those in the group to make larger donations in the next round of the game, which they played with different people. The people in that round, observing the larger donation, then went on to raise their donations in the following round. And similarly, those in that round raised their donations in the next round. The effect of one person’s kind behaviour affected the tone of the game for three successive rounds.

So consider this: this is the holiday season, the season where we traditionally show more goodwill towards each other than normal, so with each act of goodwill you show someone, pause for a second and reflect on the fact that your act of kindness will ripple far further than just the environment you’re in.

My experience shows me that when you have this in mind, you’re more likely to show even more goodwill, and more often, because you start to realise that you really can make a difference.

So with this is mind, can a small group of dedicated people with compassion and kindness in their hearts change the world?

What do you think? I think we can!