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Day 87: The kindness of strangers

January 9, 2024

Are most people good or bad? What would you answer?

Questions like this are often posed in Social Psychology research, and the answers are used in a variety of ways.

Regardless of what people answer, the average person answers based on his/her/their own biases – impacted by their most salient memories and a small collection of memories brought together by their brains at the moment of answering the question.

What does this have to do with joy?

Our biases are formed by our exposure to information and experiences and how our brains interact with these.

That said, our experiences are made up of billions of tiny pieces of detail. What we take from those experiences – and therefore remember and apply to our world-view – is shaped by the rules and views we already hold.

Based on these rules, our brains filter information in and out, shaping our experience of reality in strange and interesting ways. This is one of the reasons two people can experience the exact same thing and remember it entirely differently.

Several years ago, I learned about something called the Reticular Activating System (RAS) – a system within the brain that manages attention and helps us determine what’s important in our surroundings. For example – when you were last shopping for a car, how many more of your ‘chosen’ car did you notice on the road? It wasn’t because there were suddenly more of them. It was because your RAS was programmed to think they were important enough to grab your attention.

The same is true for acts of kindness versus malicious or thoughtless acts. Our worldview skews what we notice and remember.

It’s something I know about but not something I’ve actively practiced – with the exception of avoiding much of the news coverage that’s designed to rile us up and make us hate each other. I tend to steer clear of that stuff though I can still be pretty mistrusting.

What got me thinking about this particular thing was that tonight, whilst dashing around Sainsbury’s in an attempt to get a few bits in under 2 minutes before my 8-year old son kicked off about me taking too long, I put my car keys down on a shelf and forgot them there. I didn’t realise until we were out of the shop (far more than 2 minutes later).

I dashed back in and ran to the spot where I’d left them but they were gone. The man at security suggested I head to Customer Services so I joined the queue of 5 people, feeling hopeful that my keys were there, but also aware that, if not, my waiting time might be enough for someone to drive off in my car.

At that moment, the security man left his post and jumped the queue no my behalf. “Has anyone handed in some car keys?”

And there they were.

Sometimes it takes these sorts of acts for me to remember that I have faith in humanity and I genuinely believe people are generally good. It would serve me well not to think the worst in other situations too.

I’ll work on that.

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