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Friendliness is Literally Food for Thought

Wednesday 31 October 2012
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Who doesn't like a friendly person? Despite phrases such as 'nice guys finish last' is it not still nice to be nice? Do we not see that even some of the most successful people seem like nice people.  We are not speaking of people pawing at people in adulation for the symmetry of their shoelaces, or weeping at RSPCA adverts, but an all round friendly, honest and understanding person is always good to be around.  Compassion and empathy are key to this kind of personality.  So it is compassion which we will focus on.  Two examples from contemporary studies which show the benefits compassionate thought for ourselves, and how watching the moral deeds of others will inspire us to do similar.

First, we turn to seeing how compassion and the art of putting yourselves in the shoes of another, has wider mental health benefits than making it less likely that you'll be a lonely (insert your choice of inappropriate 4 letter word here).

At the University of Michigan, Doctor Oscar  Ybarra and colleagues wanted to see if there was  a change in our ‘executive function’  after socialising. Executive function is the ability of our brain, specifically the frontal lobes, to create working memory, goal-oriented behaviour and block out internal and external distractions.  Each of these things are what we use for a wide array of cognitive problem-solving tasks from differential calculus, to over-analysing texts from the opposite sex, to making an awesome sandwich.

What Ybarra has found is that socialising and conversing with someone, under the instruction ‘get to know them in 10 minutes’, has a marked effect our ability to solve a range of puzzling tasks.

They found that by putting oneself in someone elses shoes, there was marked improvement in the tasks.  Which makes sense as you would be trying to figure out the most complex puzzle yet known.  Another human being.  A puzzle so complex that even though we are unravelling the mysteries of the universe, we still struggle to explain why one person prefers sex with inanimate objects while another person enjoys crab fishing over cryptozoology.  So your brain is stimulating the circuits necessary to solve this problem of understanding an absolute stranger, priming those circuits for use during a subsequent puzzle.

However, interestingly, if there was a competitive edge, without trying to take on anothers perspective then there was little to no improvement.


“We believe that performance boosts come about because some social interactions induce people to try to read others’ minds and take their perspectives on things,”

“And we also find that when we structure even competitive interactions to have an element of taking the other person’s perspective, or trying to put yourself in the other person’s shoes, there is a boost in executive functioning as a result.”

This makes alot of sense on base neurological strucutre. If the frontal lobes control our executive function, there is a reason that the regions concerned with social emotions are located on it’s perifory. The TPJ (temporal-parietal junction) is  implicated in compassion, the oribtal and pre-frontal cortices are to do with the inhibition of inappropriate behaviour (Look up the story of Finneas Gauge, as the most famous of a myriad of examples) and the processing of emotions such as shame, pride, contempt, and other social emotions.

So, Just as the fingers are mapped close to each other, which is close to the arm, which is close the torso, or that faces are mapped out in one region, it shows how evolution itself has essentially said to us. "People are very important, logic one of your greatest faculties. I'll put htem close together, that'll help." It is because messages a communicated quicker and more accurately when the signals have to travel fewer neurons.  When you consider that neurons can have up to 10,000 independent connections it's one of the marvels of nature than anything gets where it's supposed to be going.

Another great study comes from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, and looks at the idea called 'moral elevation'.  That uplifting feeling we get when we see someone act in kindness.

The experiment showed that people, after reading of, or watching, a compassionate scenario were more inclined to give money away to someone else than those who were simply just asked.  They were more inclined to give altruistically, having been inspired. 

It's something we have all seen, and most probably felt, unless you are a sociopath, or a dick. A brief story from my own recent experieince sums this up nicely. An old man in my work-place of Costa today was struggling to walk. He was having an attack of diabetic weakness/virtigo/general old age and the three of us working there rushed to his aid.  We got him sat down, brought him juice and water and offered him food.  Within moments another woman offered him her last shortbread, and another women approached me with the words "Is he going to be ok, is there anything you think we can do?" Three people making a compassionate fuss over a regular spilled out and inspired people, from the nicer side of their nature, hop on the good samaritan band wagon and help in whatever small ways they could. I'm sure we have been in situations where we feel the same and have seen the same fundamental passing of good will from person to person.


SOURCE: Huzzah! Magazine
This article was originally written by Patrick Sharkey and published by
Huzzah! Magazine; Positive and interesting current events, well-thought out opinion and promoting local art scenes.

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