Objective ways to measure niceness: do you donate blood?Shane Karp

Before we begin, ask yourself the following question: are you a nice person? According to Professor Jonathan Freeman, you’re highly likely to have answered yes – 98 per cent of people surveyed answered affirmatively. In fact, this 98 per cent of people thought they were a part of the nicest 50 per cent of people: not only nice, but also nicer than their peers. You don’t have to be very good at maths to see that this doesn’t add up.

Freeman then asked the participants questions about which “nice” behaviours they do, questions designed to evaluate their niceness more objectively. Let’s see how you hold up on the niceness front here – do you give directions to lost strangers? Hold doors open? Offer up your seat on public transport? Help others with heavy bags? Give money to strangers? Help somebody across the road? Give blood? You most likely nodded to the first few questions but if you answered yes to any of the rest you’re in the minority.

It is certainly nice to be nice, but is it always kind?

It’s hardly surprising that the “nice” activities that people do more of are the easier, faster and generally more convenient ones. Being nice means being pleasant and agreeable to others. For most people it is the easy option: it’s much less uncomfortable to have those around you like you (or at least think they do), not to cause offence, or have to justify yourself and risk being judged.

The study was sponsored by the UK airline Monarch. Airlines, like any business that involves any interaction with its customers, rely on goodwill. Success for them is determined by a good safety record, competitive prices, and beyond that a reputation for good customer service. And for that they need to do everything in their power to please. In other words, it pays to be nice.

It is certainly nice to be nice, but is it always kind? We often use these words interchangeably but there’s a significant distance between them. Niceness is about pleasing others, kindness (as cheesy as it sounds) comes from the heart. Niceness is going through the motions of what you’re supposed to do: saying thank you to the barista that makes your cup of coffee, signing-off your email with ‘best wishes’ or some other pleasantry, asking your supervision partner who has evidently been crying if they’re okay (they’re obviously not, but you feel you have to ask all the same). Kindness is being compelled to do something because it feels right, regardless of what others think of you. Maybe that is giving blood or directions or money to strangers, but it’s giving for very different reasons.

According to this study we are invested in the idea of being nice. We want to believe that we are because it means that other people are more prone to like us, and external validation is key for many of us to feel happy with our current selves. Yet despite this, people-pleasing isn’t a quality we tend to admire. If we find out that a friend who volunteers for a charity only does it because they want others to think they’re a good person, we’re unlikely to respect them for that because it’s insincere.

Similarly, in a situation where you strongly disagree with someone else’s behaviour and don’t speak up against it just because it might cause upset, that may be nice but it definitely isn’t going to lead to any kind of respect, self or otherwise.

Instead of worrying about whether other people would put us in their top 50 per cent of nice people, maybe we should aspire for something else. That’s not to say to stop being  pleasant, polite and benevolent – we can all agree our world always needs more of that kind of behaviour – but we could try to care a little less what others think of us and a little more about what we actually think of ourselves