Stephen McGinty: A warm glow of kindness

A heartwarming tale from New York's has become famous worldwide. Picture: Reuters
A heartwarming tale from New York's has become famous worldwide. Picture: Reuters
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THE night of 14 November was bitterly cold in Manhattan and when Officer Lawrence DePrimo of the New York Police Department spotted a homeless man shuffling along 42nd Street in his bare feet, he decided not to walk on by.

The 25-year-old was based in the Sixth Precinct in West Village and was wearing a pair of standard-issue boots and two pairs of socks – and even he was cold.

“It was freezing out, and you could see the blisters on the man’s feet,” Officer DePrimo said. “In order to try and make as little contact with the icy pavement, the homeless man began trying to walk on his heels with his toes and soles raised up.

The policeman approached the man and asked for his shoe size: a size 12. He then walked around the corner to a shoe shop It was 9:30pm and the store was just getting ready to close, but when the manager heard for whom the officer was buying a pair of $100 all-weather boots, he offered him his staff discount, which reduced the price to $75. Officer DePrimo then went back to the homeless man and crouched down to help him put on his new boots.

It is said that there are a million stories in the Naked City and this would have been just one, known only to the officer, the store manager and the grateful recipient. But as Officer DePrimo was bending down, he was unaware that his generous act had been seen by a tourist from Arizona, Jennifer Foster, who took a snapshot with her phone. When she flew home, Ms Foster sent the picture to the NYPD’s Facebook page where it quickly became an internet hit, attracting 1.6 million hits and 275,000 “likes”.

The picture touched me, and I’ve been trying to work out why. Sometimes it’s difficult to unravel feelings. I don’t mind admitting that the story, combined with the picture, made me feel rather emotional, perhaps even a little bit teary, and it got me thinking whether there is a difference between compassion and kindness. I would like to think of myself as compassionate, as I’m sure most people would think of themselves, but how kind am I? I’m not so sure. I’ve often thought that compassion is a warm, soft, vulnerable feeling, where one wishes another well or is momentarily unhappy at a person’s plight, but is on the whole useless unless put into action. Compassion is like an elegant carriage which needs to be hitched to a kind horse. Kindness is a verb.

Think about it. How many times do we see someone in the street, a hunched elderly person or a young homeless person, and think “poor soul” then pass on our way? I know I do. Granted, on the occasions when I have tried to assist it has not always worked out well. Once, while walking along Mitchell Street in Glasgow, I saw what to me was the portrait of misery as a young man, dishevelled with his hand outstretched, but when I approached him with money he immediately brightened up and laughed: “Naw man, I’m nae a beggar.” I think there is a natural resistance that too often stays our hand, when we think of stepping in to help or do a kindly deed. The thought occurs, we cross-examine it, conclude that it is not worth interfering, and move on.

So what makes us compassionate and kind? Scientists believe the answer is linked to the brain’s supply of a peptide hormone called oxytocin. Studies of animals show that raised doses of oxytocin make voles cuddle up and tend to their young, while in humans it plays an important role for women during birth and breast-feeding. However, research in 2009 by Oregon State University also found clear links between how an individual’s body responds to oxytocin and their ability to read faces, intuitively understand another person’s emotions, feel distress at their discomfort and even identify with fictional characters in novels or films.

The scientific theory is that a variant of oxytocin found in fish helped facilitate fertilisation and as species evolved the hormone took on yet more complex roles as creatures became more sociable, until reaching the glorious complexity of man’s Facebook page. A study by the University of California found that two variants in the genetic code for the receptor that works with oxytocin strongly influenced a person’s results on the standard empathy questionnaire and in a behavioural test called “Reading the Mind in the Eyes”, in which participants examine 36 black and white photographs of people’s eyes and then pick the best word to describe their feelings from words such as uneasy, defiant, contemplative, angry etc. Those who had the A version of the oxytocin receptor, which had been linked to autism and difficulties with parenting, scored significantly lower when reading emotions in people’s eyes and had more stress, which oxytocin helps to reduce.

If you were to believe the findings of Dacher Keltner, director of the Berkeley Social Interaction Laboratory, kindness does not come from the heart but the vagus nerve, a knot of nerves which sits at the top of the spinal chord. As he explained: “It activates different organs throughout the body [heart, lungs, liver, digestive organs]. When active, it is likely to produce that feeling of warm expansion in the chest, for example when we are moved by someone’s goodness or when we appreciate a beautiful piece of music. The vagus nerve is thought to stimulate certain muscles in the vocal chamber, enabling communication. It reduces heart rate.

“Very new science suggests that it may be closely connected to oxytocin receptor networks. Our research and that of other scientists suggests that the vagus nerve may be a physiological system that supports care taking and altruism.”

It does tend to drain the warmth from the photograph of Officer DePrimo if we think that all we are witnessing is the consequence of an active vagus nerve and a person predisposed to oxytocin. Yet there is as much nurture as nature in an act of kindness, and what I’ve been delighted to discover while researching this column is that compassion, even if we do not respond immediately to a specific recipient, does effect our behaviour.

David Destino, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University in Boston designed a test in order to discover if the experience of compassion towards one person measurably changed our actions and attitudes towards others. A group of subjects were invited to take part in what they were told was an experiment

designed to find out if there was a link between mathematical ability and perception of taste. The group was to sit a very difficult maths test for which they were to be paid 50 cents for each correct answer. There was a “plant” in the group who was seen by the others to deliberately cheat. In the next part of the test, the group had to decide how much hot sauce should be put into a cup for a volunteer to drink. When they discovered that the volunteer was the cheat they added three times more hot sauce than a control group which had no cheat.

But there was a third variation of the experiment in which there was a cheat who became the volunteer to drink from the cup. However, before the group decided how much hot sauce to add in, one of the group, also a plant, broke down in tears and when questioned admitted that she was upset as her brother had recently been diagnosed with a terminal illness. Her revelation changed the dynamic of the group, with the participants pouring no more hot sauce into the cup than the control group with no cheat. As Destino explained in an article for the New York Times: “Before preparing the taste samples, we also had the participants fill out a questionnaire about their present feelings. The degree of compassion they were feeling directly predicted the amount of decreased spicy sauce they poured.”

Anyone who has performed a good deed or an act of kindness will recognise that golden glow, whether or not it emits from the vagus nerve or if the ignition on the engine of our act was turned by a little oxytocin. What matters is: if we know how good if feels, why don’t we do it more often? In New York, Officer DePrimo decided to keep the receipt for the boots he bought the homeless man and keeps it in his wallet “to remind me that sometimes people have it worse”. And that others can help.