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UCLA Opens World's 1st Institute To Study Kindness


We're going to turn now to a topic that you don't hear much about in the news these days - kindness. This week, the University of California, Los Angeles opened the world's first institute to study kindness with a $20 million gift. The Bedari Kindness Institute aims to pool the knowledge gleaned from researchers at UCLA working in different divisions - sociology, psychology and neurobiology - and house all of their scholarship about kindness in one place. The institute says it also wants to create opportunities to translate that research into real world practices, such as why does a person give up his or her seat on the train or why does somebody volunteer his or her time to help someone in need? How does kindness spread, and does being kind impact our brains?

We wanted to learn more about all this, so we've called on Daniel Fessler. He is a professor of anthropology at UCLA, and he is the inaugural director of the Bedari Kindness Institute. And he's with us now. Professor Fessler, thank you so much for talking to us.

DANIEL FESSLER: Well, thank you for your interest. I'm happy to be here.

MARTIN: I was just looking at your bio, and you say in your own bio - your own university bio that when your colleagues talk about your work, they politely call it eclectic. And I took that to mean that your work is hard to categorize. So I just wanted to ask, you know, how - what is your work, and how does it translate into this task of creating this kindness institute?

FESSLER: So it is indeed eclectic, broad-ranging, you might say. I'm an evolutionary anthropologist. And, in particular, I work on understanding contemporary human behavior, contemporary human health and how the mind works in the contemporary world in light of our species' long history of evolution. And in terms of kindness, an important feature of our species is that we are perhaps the most cooperative animal on the planet. So in no other species do you see cooperation between large numbers of unrelated individuals, or even, in many species, tolerance of large numbers of unrelated individuals.

And at the same time, our species is also an extremely conflictual one. So there's a good argument to be made that the reason we're so cooperative is because we have a long history of intergroup violent conflict. And trying to understand how the cooperation aspect of it works, the helping-one-another component of it in juxtaposition with the conflict aspect, is an important step towards understanding how we can promote a more harmonious society and a more harmonious world.

MARTIN: Could you talk a little bit more about that? I was wondering in part how you settled on kindness as the focus.

FESSLER: The reason that we select kindness in this regard is we are not exclusively concerned with actions, but we're also concerned with the thoughts, beliefs, feelings and intentions that lie behind those actions. So we define kindness as thoughts, feelings and beliefs that motivate action intended to generate a benefit for another party. In other words, intended to enhance the welfare of the other party, where doing so is an end in itself and not a means to an end. So, for example, there are many situations in which, for ulterior motives, someone may enhance someone else's welfare, but they don't actually care about that other person's welfare. And, in fact, their intentions may be malicious.

Likewise, there are cases in which one may intend to provide a benefit to someone, but something goes wrong along the way. We're interested in those class of events where people intend to benefit another. Sometimes they intend so consciously. Sometimes they intend to do so unconsciously. And that differentiates it from, say, strictly cooperation or pro-sociality, by which we mean the ability to get along with others, because people may do that for a wide variety of reasons that have nothing to do with valuing the other person's welfare.

MARTIN: In a way, is this a battle for hearts and minds? Some, I think, would argue that the goal here of the present moment is to win this battle, right? This is a high conflict moment, where people are in a conflict for, you know, resources and of - for primacy, for national identity and that the goal is to win that battle. And I'm wondering if, in part, this purpose of this institute is to enter that fray with a different model of what is possible, a different way of relating?

FESSLER: If we can change - not change people's political positions or change their personal beliefs or objectives but change the way that they experience others and change their objectives as regards to benefiting rather than displacing or exploiting others, in the long run, everyone is actually better off. If you view a situation as winner-take-all when no one ultimately can actually take all, then everyone will benefit when one views the situation instead as a lifeboat in which we all need to cooperate. And we can maintain our differences and our different perspectives and beliefs, but if we're all in the lifeboat together, we better keep that boat afloat.

MARTIN: That's Daniel Fessler, professor of anthropology at UCLA and the inaugural director of the Bedari Kindness Institute there. Professor Fessler, thanks so much for talking to us. I hope we'll talk again.

FESSLER: Thank you very much. I look forward to it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.