Random acts of kindness research: Operational definition practice

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The following would fit well with a discussion research methods, but would also work as a research methods booster in the social or emotion chapters.

In a series of studies conducted under different field and lab conditions, researchers gave participants opportunities to engage in random act of kindness to evaluate the impact that kindness had on both the giver and the recipient (Kumar & Epley, 2022) (freely available). For the purpose of this blog post, I want to focus on study 2a: hot chocolate at the skating rink.

After reading several of Kumar and Epley’s studies in this article, it makes me want to do random acts of kindness research. I want to spend a chunk of my day brainstorming random acts of kindness that I could encourage participants to do. I’m picturing Amit Kumar and Nicholas Epley sitting around on a cold day, and one of them saying, “You know what makes me happy? A hot beverage on a cold day.” And the other saying, “Especially if I’m really cold and the hot beverage is extra tasty.” It’s a short leap from there to an outdoor skating rink and hot chocolate.

With the permission of the skating rink operators, researchers approached people, told them that they were conducting a study, and gave them a choice. Here’s a cup of hot chocolate. You can keep it for yourself or you can point out anyone here, and we’ll deliver it to the person. The researchers made deliberate use of demand characteristics to encourage giving away the hot chocolate. I’m picturing something like this spiel, “The entire reason we’re out here, bub, is to investigate the effects of random acts of kindness, so we’d really love it if you’d give this hot chocolate away. But, hey, if you want to keep it, you selfish lout, there’s nothing we can do about it.” Okay, they probably didn’t call them selfish louts, although that would have upped the demand characteristics ante. While 75 people agreed to give the hot chocolate away, nine (very cold people with low blood sugar perhaps) opted to keep it.

The givers each identified one person at the outdoor skating rink to receive a hot chocolate delivery.

For the dependent variables, each hot chocolate donor was asked three questions: how big do they think this act of kindness is (scale of 0 to 10), what’s your mood now having made the decision to give away the hot chocolate compared to normal (-5 to +5, where 0 is normal), and what they thought the mood of the recipient would be upon receiving the hot chocolate (same scale, -5 to +5 where 0 is normal).  

Next, the researchers approached the identified recipients, explained that they were conducting a study, and that they gave people the choice to keep or give away a cup of hot chocolate. They further explained that a person chose to give away their cup of hot chocolate to them.

At this point, I’m a little sorry that this was not a study of facial expressions. I would imagine that looks of confusion would dominate, at least at first. Imagine standing at an outdoor ice skating rink when a complete stranger comes up to you, says they’re conducting a study, and, here, have a cup of hot chocolate. After confusion, perhaps surprise or joy. Or perhaps skepticism. The researchers did not report how many hot chocolate recipients actually drank their beverage. Also no word on how happy the researchers were since they were the ones who were actually giving away hot chocolate.

After being handed the cup of hot chocolate, each recipient was asked to rate how big this act of kindness was (0 to 10 scale) and to report their mood (scale of -5 to +5, where 0 is normal).

The design of this study makes the data analysis interesting. The mood of the givers and the mood of the recipients was each treated as a within participants comparison. The reported mood (-5 to +5) was compared against 0 (normal mood). The givers, on average, reported a net positive mood of +2.4 (with +5 being the maximum). The recipients, on average, reported a net positive mood boost to +3.52.

In a between participants comparison, givers and recipients were compared on the mood of recipients. When the givers were asked what the mood would be of the participants, they underestimated. They guessed an average of +2.73 as compared the actual rating the recipients gave their own mood of +3.52.

As another between participants comparison, the ratings of how big the givers thought their act of kindness was (3.76 on an 11-point scale) were compared to how big the recipients thought the act of kindness was (7.0 on an 11-point scale).  

Studies reported later in this article provide evidence that suggests that the difference in perspective between the givers of a random act of kindness and their recipients is that the givers attend to the act itself—such as the value of the hot chocolate—and not on the additional value of being singled out for kindness, no matter what that kindness is.

To give students some practice at generating operational definitions, point out that Kumar and Epley operationally defined a random act of kindness as giving away hot chocolate. Ask students to consider some other operational definitions—some other ways Kumar and Epley could have created a random act of kindness situation but using the same basic study design. Point out that researchers could use these other operational definitions to do a conceptual replication of this study—same concepts, but different definitions. Maybe some of your students will even choose to engage in some of those random acts of kindness.



Kumar, A., & Epley, N. (2022). A little good goes an unexpectedly long way: Underestimating the positive impact of kindness on recipients. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/xge0001271


About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology since 1992. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award. She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed. and is co-author with Charles Stangor on Introduction to Psychology, 4.0.