On the perils of contrasting niceness with kindness

At the moment there is a low level cultural conversation going on about the difference between being nice and being kind. We are reminded that these things are different. It is possible to be a gruff old bastard with a heart of gold. It is possible to be sweet but selfish. I see this a lot on Twitter. Some people are even trying to present them as sort of opposites:

Pin on *Righteous Thoughts
Nice v. Kind – Crump's Corner

I am wary though of this distinction for a couple of reasons. Let’s start with definitions. By nice, I mean exhibiting a warm and friendly demeanor and being polite. By kind I mean being willing to make sacrifices on behalf of the well-being of others, and refraining from taking advantage of others. Here’s why I don’t think we should be so quick to pry niceness and kindness apart.

The statistical relationship

Open Psychometrics is a website that provides psychological tests people can take. You can opt in to make your results available to researchers, so I looked at the big 5 test they had- specifically the agreeableness facet (“agreeableness” is a composite factor including, among other things, both niceness and kindness). I took the two questions in the agreeableness facet which were obviously related, positively or negatively, to being nice, viz:

“I insult people.”

“I make people feel at ease.”

And added up user scores for each (or rather added the question about making people feel at ease and subtracted the question about insulting people). Making a composite score of niceness.

I then took the three questions that seemed clearly related to being kind- positively and negatively. Subtracting “I feel little concern for others” and “I am not interested in others problems” and adding “I take time out for others”. Making a composite score of kindness.

I then correlated the two composite scores, finding they correlated .37. This is a moderate correlation by the standards of social science, but the correlation is likely attenuated because the correlated scores are based on only a handful of questions- and very difficult questions to judge accurately about oneself regardless. When variables are measured unreliably, this makes the correlation between them weaker. This means the real correlation of the underlying variables, measured in a more reliable, is doubtless much higher. You can read more about correction for attenuation here if you are interested: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Correction_for_attenuation. I used some lowish estimates of the degree of unreliability and got a corrected score of 0.5.

For your reference, here is what different degrees of correlation look like graphed:

Simple Regression and Correlation | Basicmedical Key

So while these variables may be, in theory, different things, in practice they tend to go together. There is a tendency for the same people who are kind to be nice.

This is an important point that it’s worth remembering in the social sciences (everywhere, really) just because two things are conceptually distinct as ideas, doesn’t mean they easily come apart in the real world. The idea of having a kidney is a very different to the idea of having a heart, yet every single organism with one has the other. For ease of mental labeling, you might think of this as the “conceptual distinctness fallacy”- the fallacy of thinking of thinking that the degree to which concepts are distinct from each other determines how often the variables they track come apart in the world.

I would note one important caveat here. Be careful in applying this principle cross-culturally, because there are different norms of politeness across cultures. Just because someone comes from a brusque or abrupt culture doesn’t mean they’re ungenerous. The relationships between variables that exist at the level of individuals aren’t always the same as the relationships that exist between variables at the level of groups.

So yes, there is a relationship between kindness and niceness, and that leads me to a further worry. I am concerned that people use this idea of “niceness isn’t kindness” as a crutch to excuse their own verbal cruelty to others to themselves. It can become a way to avoid difficult questions about how we treat other people. “Oh sure I told that person on Twitter to eat shit, so I’m not nice, but don’t you know I’m kind and that’s way more important”(1). People can use this line of reasoning to avoid self-improvement. It could even be that if niceness and kindness are related on a deep level letting our niceness atrophy may reduce our kindness as well.

But moreover, the effects of not being nice and being unkind are more similar than people realize- they can both fuck people up. Humans are fundamentally social creatures we are intrinsically- without our voluntary choice- effected by the opinions of others. Being insulted hurts. Being shunned or ostracized is extremely hurtful according to a wealth of psychological studies. One of the main, consistent results from the literature on ostracism is that being ostracized hurts a lot more than most people realize:

https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0127002

And these effects are particularly hard on vulnerable people- e.g. the socially anxious:

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0022103105001290

So please, be careful in treating niceness and kindness as completely different, especially if your purpose in doing so is to diminish the importance of niceness.

(I always feel bad about moralizing so I want to be clear that I am neither especially nice nor kind)

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(1)– Another notable feature of this is that our niceness is tested far more frequently than our kindness, so it’s easier to deceive ourselves about our kindness.

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