Did you know that an experiment with a gorilla can teach us a whole lot about creating great relationships?
Well, not a gorilla, exactly. But an element of a classic (read: old) study that demonstrated an urgent and timeless truth every one of us must learn if we want to live, work, and play well with others.
In 1999 at Harvard University, volunteers watched a short video of people playing around with some basketballs. The viewers were told to count how many times those in white shirts passed a ball. Simple, right? Well, at the end of the video, the viewer is asked, “Did you see the gorilla?”
It turns out, half of viewers involved in the experiment missed the fact that someone in a gorilla suit walks into the middle of the swirling players, faces the camera, beats their chest, and walks out of the frame. It wasn’t at all subtle. In fact, researchers later used eye trackers and many viewers looked straight at the gorilla for a full second or two, and still didn’t see it.
Researchers call it “inattentional blindness.” It’s the invisibility of something that should actually be obvious and noticeable. We don’t notice something important, simply because we’re not looking for it.
Well, it turns out, in our own research, we have seen how vital it is to root out one particularly common and dangerous blind spot that probably impacts us and our relationships every single day. We have also seen how vital it is to look straight at and see something else instead.
Our big blind spot: We think we are a kind person.
Nearly all of us value kindness. We try to be kind to others. We teach our children to respond with grace to those who are mean. We try to not respond with rudeness when someone is rude to us. We are kind, right?
Well . . . um . . . not really. It turns out: Our big blind spot is that we are not nearly as kind as we think we are.
In my three-year research study for The Kindness Challenge, we discovered most of us have some serious “inattentional blindness” about how unkind we can be in our everyday life. It is sobering how often it happens . . . and how often we don’t even notice it.
Before the start of our experiment, we asked participants to estimate how often they praised a particular person, how often they were negative or unkind to or about them, and so on. They then spent 30 days doing a specific initiative called the 30-Day Kindness Challenge, including intentionally working to show no negativity toward that person—including how they spoke about that person to others. At the end, we asked the participant whether their initial guesses had been realistic or not.
The vast majority (95%) realized they had been way off! Within the first one or two days, most participants realized they had no idea how negative and unkind they were, until they weren’t allowed to be.
In the survey feedback, most participants said something like this woman: “This was a little humbling and very eye-opening. I had no idea how often I got exasperated, how much I corrected my husband, how bad my tone could be. How embarrassing. I’m SO GLAD for the chance to finally see that stuff, so I can get rid of it!”
I think it is time for all of us to “see that stuff” so we can get rid of it! Because when we are in the swirl of life and don’t realize that we are being unkind and negative to others, we are missing something that can easily wreck any daily relationship (with a spouse, child, someone we’re dating, colleague, in-law…), without us ever realizing it.
So how do we confront and overcome this particular blind spot? And what can we do instead? Take these three steps.
STEP ONE: Take a simple (free) online assessment of your Kindness Quotient.
Now, you could be a mini-Mother Theresa, and truly one of the kindest people around. But for most of us, however, this assessment is a good wake-up call about those areas we might want to focus on. (And if you have already taken it, share it with someone else who might find it interesting.)
STEP TWO: For a few days, commit to saying nothing negative to or about anyone in your life.
Nothing. You can’t get exasperated that your son didn’t take out the trash, you can’t suspiciously ask your colleague whether Bob and Nate had that big meeting without you, you can’t post that sarcastic retort on Facebook. You can’t even say to yourself “Why bother even trying this? So-and-so isn’t going to change!” Nothing negative.
If Step One is a good wakeup call, Step Two is more like a head-butt! Once you have to cut out all negativity, you quickly find just how often you do it.
Here’s a tip: Do you know what your specific negativity pattern is? There are seven completely different patterns of unkindness, and we all have at least one that tends to show up in multiple ways in our life. Look at the list in Chapter 6 of The Kindness Challenge to diagnose yours.
STEP THREE: For those few days, every time you catch yourself saying something negative, quickly stop and think, How could I have said/done that differently, so it wasn’t negative?
You realized you got exasperated with the kids because they were too slow to turn off their electronics and help you set the table. So after you blow it, you stop and think, I could have calmly said, “Kids, you probably didn’t intend to make me do all the work, but since I had to set the table without you, no more electronics today.” (Not saying anything negative doesn’t mean you can’t give true discipline where it is needed! You just can’t do it negatively!)
The cool thing about this exercise is that as you think about the “kind version” of what you just said, you’ll start actually doing that kind version.
This points out the crucial neuroscientific truth that underlies our quest toward kindness: what we focus on is what we will see. If we focus on the annoying things said by our sister-in-law on social media, we will see more of that and get more annoyed. If we focus on the fact that our sister-in-law has spent the last three months offering to help watch the kids so we can finish our night classes, we will have far more gratitude and far less annoyance. I can’t help but think of my favorite scripture (Philippians 4:8). Whenever we focus on what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy, THAT is exactly what we will see. And if we’re focusing on other things, well . . . we might be missing something big.
Seriously. Try these three steps. Or just go ahead and do the full 30-Day Kindness Challenge! You’ve got nothing to lose and plenty of gorillas (I mean, true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy things) to gain!
This article was also published at Patheos.
Check out the online courses of Shaunti’s research and teachings at SurprisingHope.com.
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