Kindness Is a Risky Business

How to Break Through the Toxic Haze of Moral Disgust

By Tracy Dennis-Tiwary

Moral disgust is currently the default emotion in our politically-divided country and it has profound toxic social and emotional effects on all of us. Moral disgust can be thought of as the universal repugnance people feel toward extremely bad conduct, like abuse of the vulnerable, cruelty, corruption, and so on. Moral disgust in a relationship is toxic because, like physical disgust, when we’re disgusted by someone, we want nothing to do with them. We want to “expel” the offender and their offensive behavior or beliefs, like spitting out rotten food. Even more radically, in the throes of disgust, we no longer think of the other as quite completely human, and, therefore, not truly worthy of being heard and understood. Sociologists call this tacit belief that one’s “in-group” is more human than an “out-group” infrahumanization and it’s dangerous for healthy social relationships.

We are living during an inflection point in history, in which infrahumanization is on the rise. Who we consider to be “our kind” versus “those people” is increasingly polarized as ideological divides and tribal feuds deepen. What do we do? Many of us feel paralyzed by these divisions, whereas others feel overwhelmed with anger and disgust.

It’s easy for me to pose this question; it’s much harder for me to come to terms with what I actually think we should do about this. I, too, have felt revulsion towards people whose views are antithetical to my own values. I’ve thought, “Why would I want to understand their poisonous, hateful, thoughts? These views should be stamped out.” And indeed, with the renewed rise of a range of hate groups, I still feel that we as a society must in every way counteract these hateful and violent messages and beliefs.

Yet, while I have felt those feelings in full measure, I am equally certain that neither disgust nor repressing views with which we disagree are long-term solutions. Thinking about the views of some “other side” as a battle between good and evil only leaves room for good or bad, us against them, and leaves little room for greater understanding and positive change.

I want to propose a deceptively simple, but counterintuitive approach for how we can proceed in this situation. Namely, I think we proceed with kindness, but kindness in a completely different light than what we’re accustomed to. The thoughtful and courteous behavior we see as kindness is actually only the icing on the cake. Kindness is more accurately thought of as a set of evolutionarily-honed skills and practices that directly shape our perception of in-group and out-group. These skills can be effectively used to bridge the divides of infrahumanization. At the same time, kindness requires us to take risks and move outside the comfort zone of being with “our kind.”

What Is Kindness?

It is no coincidence that the word kindness is derived from the Old English word cynde, meaning both fundamental nature and nation. In the very roots of the word, we see that humans have long thought that it is intrinsic to human nature to be part of a cohesive group; a member of a nation. You see this same intersection in the Latin word most often translated as kindness—humanitas—meaning nature and civilization.

Kindness is often defined as treating others in ways that are friendly, generous, and thoughtful of their needs and wishes, and doing so without expecting or requiring reward or benefit in return. Kindness is not simply good manners, however, because one can go through the motions of good manners—like saying “please” and “thank you,” holding doors for others, and helping the elderly across the street—without consideration of their thoughts and wishes, or with the expectation of reward. Susanne can politely open the door for John, but he may refuse the offer because it implies he needs the assistance. The first time she holds the door, Susanne may be kind, but if she persists in holding the door despite protests, she is unkind. Intention matters.

Kindness Is Risky

Why would kindness be risky? Kindness is fundamentally risky because it is about group membership. We’re used to focusing our kindness on “our kind.” To be broadly kind is to reduce divisions between them and us, and open up membership into our tribe. To do so, we have to make the conscious decision to step out of out of our comfort zone to reach out to the “other.” We are very comfortable in our echo chambers and communities of like-minded people. This is one of the negative effects of social media networks, which are curated to primarily include those with similar views to our own. Facebook algorithms ensure this. Kindness, empathy, compassion, and perspective-taking involve risk because we have to step out of the comfort zone of our carefully-curated tribes with our shared world view. What are these other worlds that people live in? We don’t know, and they kind of scare us.

Humans are social animals and we evolved to be communal, benefitting from the safety, resources, and support a social community provides. Echo chambers feel safe for that reason. It was the tribal humans, not the lone wolves that survived and thrived across millennia. At the same time, we know on some level that tribes are fluid groups, and that we have to sometimes take risks not only to protect our tribe, but to grow and enrich it by including new people who might start as outsiders.

This riskiness may be baked in to our basic neurodevelopment. In a recent research review article published in the journal Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, the authors propose a new area of research on prosocial behavior in adolescence called prosocial risk taking. Building off recent work showing that the neural circuitry that typically underlies risky behaviors also contributes to prosocial behaviors, the idea of prosocial risk taking is that two well-defined adolescent behaviors—increased risk taking and growing prosocial motives—overlap. The question, “Do adolescents take risks to benefit others?” has rarely been asked.

The authors give this example, “Imagine you are a teenager at school and witness a bully embarrassing another person. Do you intervene and defend the victim? Or do you say and do nothing because you are worried about the consequences? What will your friends think if you do or do not intervene? What if the bully begins to target you? In this example, the prosocial risk taking response would be to stand up to the bully and help the victim. This is risky because there is a chance that the bully will redirect his/her physical and verbal attacks at them.”

This new but intriguing new area of research underscores that in many cases, kindness and prosocial behavior goes hand in hand with risk, and a major task for the developing human brain is how to find balance between the two.

How to Break Through Moral Disgust with Non-Violent Communication

No matter where we live and work, we will encounter people with whom we disagree, who make us uncomfortable or perhaps angry because of their views. Is there a way that each of us can decide to reach out and get to know that person better while withholding judgement and criticism, even if for a short period of time?

A widely used approach to this kind of mindful listening is non-violent communication (NVC). NVC breaks down communication into four key components: observations, feelings, needs, and requests. Many of us may be familiar with one or more of these principles, but NVC brings them all together in a way that may be particularly effective for reducing misunderstanding and promoting connection. It’s hard to be truly disgusted with someone when you understand their perspective on multiple levels.

In a study of NVC among health professionals, training in NVC not only improved accuracy of communication, but decreased empathic distress and perception of social stressors at work.

Let’s apply NVC to a situation in which two friends are having a serious disagreement. In the heat of the conversation, one friend says, “Are you crazy? How can you think that?! You’re not even listening to what I’m trying to tell you!” In response, the other friend could respond using the four components of NVC:

Observations. An observation is a clear expression of what is happening in a given situation without blaming or criticizing. When we make an observation, we strive to be objective and we target a concrete action or behavior that is affecting our well-being. For example, “When you said those words to me…”

Feelings. Feelings are basic emotions like sad, happy, angry, and scared in relation to the observation. Here we avoid non-feeling words that imply judgement or reach beyond the actual emotion we’re experiencing. To continue the example above, “When you said those words to me, I felt abandoned…” is not NVC because abandoned is not a feeling word. It is a word that carries judgement with it because it describes a set of complex feelings, expectations, and personal experiences. These kinds of words often prevent us from being able to identify the real underlying feeling we are experiencing. So, according to NVC, we might instead say, “When you said those words to me, I felt sad…”

Needs. Needs are the desires and values that cause feelings. Needs are universal because everything we do, we do to fulfill our needs. Therefore, by stating our needs, we are actually building common ground with the other person because of the universality of needs. In our example, we might say, “When you said those words to me, I felt sad because I deeply value our friendship.”

Requests. The final stage of NVC is a request, or clear statement of what is wanted from the other side at this moment (not in the future) and that is truly a request, not a demand. Making requests are a way of taking concrete action to enrich our lives. To finish our example, “When you said those words to me, I felt sad because I deeply value our friendship. Can we start the conversation over?”

In this example, NVC has the potential to short-circuit anger and disgust because it allows the friends to take a step back for greater clarity, remember their connection to one another, and give communication another try in the midst of a passionate discussion.

The NVC approach is also powerful because it not only clarifies what we feel and need, but requires that the other listen non-judgmentally for a moment and truly try to understand. There is much more to this approach, which you can read about here, but NVC works best when both communication partners are on board.

What happens when the “other side” isn’t open to this approach? In an inspiring recent New York Times OpEd by David Brooks, “How to Engage a Fanatic,” he struggles with the question of whether to have “a civil conversation with a zealot…” or whether “…you’ve just got to exile them, or confront them with equal and opposite force.” After considering the alternatives, he concludes that compassion and civility are the only viable options. He draws from Yale Law professor Stephen L. Carter’s 1998 book Civility in which he argues that civility “is the sum of the many sacrifices we are called to make for the sake of living together.” Mr. Brooks argues that the only way to confront fanaticism is with love, pointing out, “You don’t have to like someone to love him. All you have to do is try to imitate Martin Luther King, who thrust his love into his enemies’ hearts in a way that was aggressive, remorseless and destabilizing.”

This approach is not easy, and many people with extremely different views from our own will never change their mind or hear what we’re trying to say. They may reject us and spew their anger at us. We may be hesitant to take those prosocial risks. But civility, kindness, and empathy may reflect the only approach that gives us a fighting chance. Sorry, I mean a non-fighting chance.

Dr. Tracy Dennis-Tiwary, PhD is an emotion scientist and Professor in the Psychology Department at Hunter College of the City University of New York, where she is also co-director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Health Technology and Wellness and of the Stress, Anxiety, and Resilience Research Center. She is the creator of the stress-reduction app Personal Zen. You can read more about her work at

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