It doesn’t take much to be kind – if we pay attention

An elderly woman boarded the train I was riding the other day. The carriage was crowded, but someone immediately gave up his seat for her.

A beautiful picture from the other week of Earth from 1.6 million km sunwards. NASA, public domain.
All of humanity are here. NASA, public domain.

Random acts of kindness like this are what should happen in the world. They don’t – not nearly often enough.

A lot of the problem, I think, flows from the way we have outgrown the boundaries of what we can cope with. There is compelling evidence that we are biologically geared to groups of perhaps 150 – by no coincidence, the typical size of a kin-related hunter-gatherer group.

Outside that, it’s possible to build other associations, but the relationships will be different.

That’s especially true for societies where the scale of community has spiralled, something that began millennia ago for humanity with the advent of the first organised city-states. However, it’s gained new proportion of late on the back of the industrial revolution that began for the west in the mid-late eighteenth century.

In Britain, for example, this dislocated the rural pattern of village communities – most of them around the 150-mark, funnily enough – and sent people surging into the cities in the hope of finding work. It is no coincidence that the nineteenth century was the great ‘age of the city’ for the British.

That era – and the twentieth century that followed – was filled with the trope of urban loneliness; of soul-less communities where most inhabitants were strangers to each other.

Has the advent of the internet and the mobile revolution changed any of that?

Yes it has – in that now we can find communities (which, apparently, run to groups of about 150, funnily enough) all across the world. We can connect with them – get to know them, and socialise. All remotely by our phones.

Has that solved the social problem of city communities that have blown out far beyond the coping scale of the primary human social mechanism?

Not really. We are far too busy, it seems, with our own selves and with the contents of our cellphones.

Being nice to people isn’t hard. Often it costs nothing – a simple smile, holding a door open. Little things count as much as the big gestures. But we have to be aware it’s happening, even if we are inclined to do it…


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015



3 thoughts on “It doesn’t take much to be kind – if we pay attention

  1. The 150-person group concept is interesting. I do believe we are genetically predisposed to certain tendencies, including social comfort level. I’d like to know more about the 150-person online groups you referred to.

    1. This group size seems to be a standard average community size for humans and was first noticed in 1990 by Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist. I am not convinced by his explanation, which may be partly right but is too deterministic for my liking. However, the fact that humans tend to create groyps that average around 150 individuals seems clear enough even if the specifics of why are still being debated.

  2. I would love to see more of these kindnesses but it seems this techie world is too busy with their heads in their phones, tables, iPads, etc. They don’t always see what is right in front of them like an old person who needs a seat on the bus, or needs help crossing the street or who just wants some help carrying their groceries. There are kind people who are out there. Kind people please step forward and led a hand. One day I could be that old person who needs your help. Maybe they are in a 150-person group somewhere. Lol!

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