Kindness Will Save the World


When I was in my post-grad, I remember a little ABA meme with a mouse holding up a sign that read “ABA will save the world”; of course I had the appropriate nasal laugh at it. But the more I dived into ABA the more I realized it’s not entirely a joke. There’s something there. The more I grew up as a person, the more it clicked for me. It may not be ABA alone that saves the world, but Kindness Will Save the World supported by ABA.

How you ask? With the support of ABA, Kindness can be taught and spread around to increase everyone’s overall quality of life. I bet you if you looked into some of the countries who have a higher quality of life there are a greater number of kind acts in their daily routines.

So who am I to say that ABA and kindness will save the world, that love really does conquers all. I’m Rebecca Hamilton a board certified behaviour analyst in my 9-5, I have worked in the field of applied behaviour analysis for about a decade. I’m hands on teaching, learning and using ABA daily. So as a certified behaviour analyst I have to say, it’s true, that kindness will save the world.

As behaviour analysts we study only socially significant behaviour, and you must admit a better world is pretty socially significant. Why study behaviour in the first place? We study behaviour so we can understand ourselves, understand humanity on a smaller level, how do we learn, how do we become who we are, how do we influence one another? How do we as humans create experiences? One of the oldest and earliest behaviour discoveries was Pavlov’s dog. He was able to train his dog that a bell meant food was coming, and thus the dog would salivate at the sound of the bell even without food present. This was one of the very, very beginnings of behaviourism. We use the same kind of thought process to perceive how we interact with others. How we build our societies and how our behaviour can be increased or decreased. Think of it like the justice system. Right? Our police and government put in place consequences based on the crime people commit. They loose many daily privileges and are sent to prison to serve time. Our system does this in the chances that such consequences would decrease the probability of the behaviour occurring again. That’s ABA so we’re going to take these behaviour concepts and apply it to kindness.

Now I can’t say whether kindness or being a quote unquote good human is biological or purely a result of our environment, whether people were born evil or not. But I can say that kindness can still be taught by the environment around it. The problem is, we all have different ideas of what kindness means. So for the purpose of my theory I want to explain what I believe is the definition of kindness. Kindness to me and what I base my theory on here today is doing an act for someone else’s benefit. Now it may also benefit you but the pure intent is for the other person, that they gain something from your action. A couple examples I can think of: donating to a charity, shoveling your neighbours driveway, a smile to the TTC driver, a small conversation with your barista, paying for someone else’s coffee. These are acts of kindness.

We have to review a couple definitions first

What is applied behaviour analysis or ABA? ABA is the study of how behaviour interacts and is impacted by its environment. We study how reactions of others both human and inanimate objects in the space around us can influence what we do in the future. Either our actions will increase or decrease based on our experiences.

I’m going to try to refrain from being too technical and avoid jargon words, but there is a basic of behaviourism you must know. It’s the three-term contingency, or ABC. A is the antecedent, what happens IMMEDIATELY before a behaviour, behaviour represented by the letter B, and C is consequence, this is what happens IMMEDIATELY after a behaviour. A consequence is not necessarily “good or bad” but it is what influences the possibility of the behaviour happening again in the future.

So I have to go back a second here and explain what is behaviour. Behaviour is any action we can observe. If a dead man can do it, then it is not behaviour is our general rule. Talking, spinning, giving a high five, crying are all good examples of behaviour. It does not include covert actions like feelings or thoughts, that is another branch that requires different applications.

Okay back to the three-term contingency, here’s an example. A friend recommends you try a new restaurant, you are hesitant as you’ve never eaten there before. This is your antecedent. You behaviour would be trying the food at the new restaurant. Now the consequence could be one of several outcomes, but we’ll keep it simple and look at two potential outcomes. 1) you like the food and 2) you hated the food. If your experience at the new restaurant resulted in consequence 1, you are more likely to revisit that restaurant in the future this called Reinforcement . Now consequence number 2 was your experience, you’re less likely to return to the restaurant in the future this is called punishment.

Reinforcement and punishment. Remember these terms. Reinforcement is when the consequence results in a higher probability of the behaviour occurring again. Punishment is when the consequence results in a lower probability of the behaviour occurring again.

So how the hell does this relate to kindness and saving the world?

How you react and interact with others has a larger impact on the world than you realize. If we all acted according to how we want to see the world, then the world just might be a little bit better. If you choose to give your attention to the behaviours you want to see, then you’ll see more and more of it. If we acknowledge more kindness, there will be more around you.

I’ll break it down for you.

Say you’re at the grocery store, and someone puts the barrier thing down on the belt at the counter so you can load your groceries (this story of course takes place before COVID). This is an act of kindness. Now you have a couple options 1) you ignore the act for whatever reason either you’re feeling awkward or you just didn’t notice; or 2) you say thank you out loud or make eye contact and smile. Option 2 means you responded and acknowledged their kind act. This is reinforcement! This will increase the likelihood of the person in front of you to do this behaviour again.

Now if you went with the first option, and you ignored the act of kindness or responded rudely (maybe with a dirty look or muffed “yeah thanks”) the individual may be punished and may be less likely to put a barrier down for someone else in the future. Meaning one less act of kindness in the world.

Do you get it? If you acknowledge kindness, there will be more of it. If you ignore kindness, there will be less of it. Now ABA wouldn’t be a good science if the effects didn’t carry over for other types of behaviours. So the very same principles of reinforcement and punishment apply to non-kind behaviours as well, such as fake news. If we give attention to fake news, there could be an increase in fake news, and if we ignore fake news, it would be less likely to see fake news in the future. If we’re ignoring other people’s kindness, we could see a decrease in kindness around the world. Sounds horrible doesn’t it? It’s the same manner as the algorithms on your social media. They see what you double tap, so that you’re shown more images that you are likely to double tap.

So how can we start today to encourage kindness in the word? According to ABA there are three things we can do. 1) teach by modeling kind behaviours 2) teach kindness behaviours by shaping it in other people and 3) self manage our own kind behaviours. Let’s review each strategy now.

We can teach other to be kind by modeling kind behaviour. Now modeling is an antecedent strategy, that means it’s anything that occurs before the act of kindness. This can be anything from a public service announcement; like all the ones reminding you talk to your kids about marijuana; to seeing kind stories on social media or the news; to being kind to yourself and others. Humans learn by what they see others doing, we see people clapping at us when we are infants, so we imitate it. And guess what, we are typically reinforced with more attention and therefore we are more likely to clap again in the future. Have you ever had a friend who fidgeted with their fingers, or laughed a certain way or said a word a certain way and then you started to say the word in the same manner? As humans we replicate modeled actions and this how we learn to function in our environments, in our societies. If we all modeled how we want to be treated and if see that every day and we’re in front of it face to face we will start to do that behaviour. If we see kindness, we are more likely to imitate kindness.

We can also teach kindness by not only reinforcing kindness but also reinforcing other people’s attempts of kindness. I’m human, I get it, I make mistakes too. I still have my moments where I reinforce Trump’s fake news, or I don’t acknowledge someone putting the barrier down. We all have different kinds of days. So when you come across someone who is still trying to be kind even in the face of reality of this world, reinforce it. Acknowledge it, even just a bit of kind eye contact. And if you’re the one who sees someone giving a little smile, give a little smile right back. Reinforce all intentions of kindness.

Lastly, we can increase kindness in the easiest way possible, by simply being kind. You need to remind yourself to be kind, you need to reward yourself for being kind. by acknowledging that “yes! I am a good person!”

Let’s take pause here and I want you to think of ways you can be kind today. It doesn’t have to be grand or perfectly planned, it can be as simple as giving someone a compliment, it can be a small conversation with your barista or holding the door open for someone. So think of one more unique way you can be kind today......... now I want you to think of a way you like to be rewarded that is reasonable, like a hot bath, an extra 2 minutes at break time, or listening to your favourite song…. Go ahead take a moment….

So lets think about our ABC, your antecedent is me talking on this podcast, prompting you to act kind… your behaviour is an act of kindness you just thought about, and your consequence is the small reward or acknowledgement a kind act. Now if that reward was good enough, you’ll be more likely in the future to engage in that specific kind act. So you need to monitor how often you’re being kind, and acknowledging kind, be aware of your impact and again, you’ll see the changes all around you.

The goal is for more kindness, the more we see, the more we acknowledge, the more it’ll happen, but also hopefully the more kindness is carried over from your act to another person, this is called generalization. We want to generalize, AKA carry over, kindness from small little interactions with strangers into our everyday relationships, into our classrooms, into our institutions and governments. It’s a long road, but ABA and you will help kindness get there.

So there you have it. How Kindness will change the world into a better place. Backed up by a behaviour analyst using the very science of behaviour. So go on, give yourself a pat on the back, a sticker to your chart for being nice to someone or for when you’re acknowledging or accepting another person’s kindness. You will see how you can change the world, one sticker at a time!

Photo by Dee @ Copper and Wild on Unsplash