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Radio review: The Anatomy of Kindness Results and Lent Talks

18 March 2022


The Anatomy of Kindness Results (Radio 4, Wednesday) revealed the results of a scientific study of attitudes towards “Kindness”

The Anatomy of Kindness Results (Radio 4, Wednesday) revealed the results of a scientific study of attitudes towards “Kindness”

WHEN Philip Larkin writes “We should be careful of each other, we should be kind,” he has earned his moment of self-indulgent sentiment. The poem that precedes this much quoted line offers a stomach-churning account of a hedgehog savaged by a lawnmower. The juxtaposition is darkly comic: like attaching a Hallmark greeting-card epigram to an image of roadkill. But, when the line was quoted, out of context, by one of the panellists on The Anatomy of Kindness Results (Radio 4, Wednesday), it received an approving round of applause.

There is something out-of-context, ungrounded, about the whole programme, which marked the conclusion of an enterprise begun last August, and reviewed in this column (Radio, 10 September 2021). The project: a scientific study of attitudes towards “Kindness”, based on an online survey. And now the results are in. More than 60,000 people took part, from 144 countries, making it “the world’s largest psychological study on kindness”.

Since the survey was originally billed as the first study of its kind, it is hard to know what to do with this claim. Nine million data points certainly sounds impressive, and will keep the researchers at the University of Sussex busy for some time. But some preliminary conclusions are possible: such as a list of the most popular words associated with kindness: “empathy, care, helping, thoughtfulness, compassion, and love”; and the top five impulses which people quote as exemplifying kindness. These include opening doors for people (whether metaphorically or actually is not clear) and giving help to people when they ask for it.

There is more: three more programmes’ worth. As an “Anatomy” it does not fulfil the modern textbook definition of a technical analysis of a physical (or, here, psychological) structure. The best that anyone could do in this programme was done by the poet Raymond Antrobus, who praised the endeavour as “an experiment in emotional science”. As such, it is a nice idea. Perhaps that should be the next project: a survey of “Niceness.”

In the only reference in the programme to religious values, the lead scientist informed us that a value system that encouraged benevolence resulted in higher levels of kindness. But not to worry; Radio 4’s Wednesday schedule also featured the first of this year’s Lent Talks, and, bucking the trend of recent years, the first of these was given by somebody who is unafraid to declare his faith and its transformative effect.

Pastor Mick Fleming is undoubtedly kind; although the adjective is in no way sufficient to describe his work with Church on the Street (News, 11 December 2020). This was a talk rooted in Pastor Mick’s profoundly traumatic personal back-story, and the immensely challenging situations that others now bring to him. But there was theology here as well, as, reflecting on the text “I was hungry and you gave me food,” he took us, with no hint of pretence, from the literal to the eucharistic.

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