Most people aren't, according to a new study. But there are 3 ways you can work on it.
What does it mean to be a nice person? Generosity of heart, thoughtfulness, and always having a smile at the ready might be a good start at defining it. A new study conducted by psychologists from Goldsmiths, University of London surveyed people and asked them to define their niceness by their actions. Participants were asked a series of questions about “nice” actions such as giving directions to someone who’s lost, giving up a seat on public transportation, giving blood, or offering to help carry heavy shopping bags. The result? “You may consider yourself to be a nice person, but according to a new study you’re probably not as nice as you think,” writes Rachel Hosie reporting for the Independent.
Many of these common examples of everyday, nice actions turned out to be less common than we think.
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As I was reading this study I wondered, “Am I actually a nice person? Would other people say that I am?” I’ve never helped an elderly lady across the street and never paid-it-forward by purchasing a cup of coffee for the person behind me in line. But even in more typical, everyday ways, this study really opened my eyes to the ways in which I fall short from my self-perception. There are some things I’m okay at — for instance I always open doors for strangers and merge politely when driving on the highway. I never try to sneak to the front of a line and always try to say hello and look the cashier in the eye at the supermarket checkout.
But other habits of niceness I’m simply lacking altogether. I forget to wish people a happy birthday. I never remember ahead of time to get them a thoughtful gift, let alone a card. I tend to forget about friends for long periods and don’t make much effort to maintain the relationship (the excuse is typical: busyness with work and family). At least a few times now, I’ve seen strangers in public fall down and it took me a shameful moment of inaction before I actually remembered that it might be a thoughtful, human response to stop staring and actually help them get back up and check that they were okay.
It’s funny how a quick examination of conscience brings clarity in an area in which I (and apparently many others) thought I was doing perfectly fine. I didn’t have the heart to actually ask people to confirm if I’m nice or not, but I suspect the answers would have involved long, awkward pauses followed up by fake-sincere assurances that of course I’m a nice person. It would be my own fault, though, for asking such a blunt, not-at-all-nice question of an unsuspecting friend.
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So, why the gap between how nice we think we are and how nice we actually are? Speaking for myself, I know that I over-focus on my good moments and forget the bad. I can easily live off the glory of that one time I shared an umbrella with someone, and that memory has a distorting effect because it looms large in my mind over all of the other, not-so-nice actions of which I’m guilty. Other people don’t suffer from the same distortion effect in the way they perceive me, meaning that, in a way, others see us more accurately than we even see ourselves. This distortion effect isn’t present only with niceness, and it’s interesting to note that it’s a proven phenomenon with physical appearance. (Basically, we all think we’re better looking than we really are.)
Another possible reason for this gap between perception and reality exists because we rationalize our own behavior and are experts at giving ourselves the benefit of the doubt. Combine this with the fact that we’re less generous at giving others that same benefit of the doubt and … Surprise! I’m super nice in comparison to everyone else. It’s like when I’m driving on the highway and accidentally cut someone off, pass on the right, or make some other odd maneuver. I know that it was a mistake, so it’s easy to rationalize it, but meanwhile the person in the car behind is seething with frustration at the inconsiderate driver ahead of them (me!).
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The niceness gap also exists because we misinterpret the outcome of being nice. One interesting result from the study is that “nice” seems to be correlated with “successful.” We mistakenly think that, if a person makes a lot of money, it’s at least partly because they have a habit of nice actions. This may not be the case at all. Perhaps this is why we idolize certain pop stars and celebrities even if their personal behavior isn’t all that admirable. We assume they must be nice people, otherwise how would they have become so famous?
If I want to make my rosy self-image a reality and take some practical steps to actually becoming a nicer person, there are a few simple steps.
The first step is to discard illusions and honestly admit that I’m not as nice as I think I am. I don’t go out of my way to help people out nearly as much as I give myself credit for, and there are many ways I can improve.
Second, I shouldn’t overestimate good actions from my past. Being nice is an everyday, habitual action. Third, I need to be nice to all people, regardless of the circumstances, and not worry if my actions are connected with success.
Last but most important is to stop thinking about perceptions vs. reality and stop worrying what other people think. The best possible response to a study like this is to rededicate ourselves to being nice for its own sake because being a good person isn’t about reputation. It’s about truly caring for those around us and doing our part to make the world a better place.