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Moral Intuition and the Kindness of Strangers

the kindness of strangersShe was dressed in a mink coat and oversized full fur Russian hat. Her Jimmy Choo boots and all black pantsuit seemed out of place in New York’s Penn Station. Plus, she was wheeling behind her an oversized Louis Vuitton travel bag. Even for New York she seemed too intense.

She might have been fifty years old, but her exact age was disguised, buried under impenetrable makeup and dark lipstick. She had style — but lacked grace. She seemed to be on a mission — somehow in a hurry to take a trip she didn’t want to take.

The escalator leading down to the train platform had a long line of passengers eager to board. Some with bags — some with brief cases — each looking to go home or get away.

A train attendant was scanning tickets to make sure people were heading toward the right train. His well-worn uniform was a simple mural for his warm and inviting smile. Standing at the top of the escalator he screened each person’s voucher while preventing people breaking in line. His seasoned stance, large frame and polite demeanor welcomed and assured. He’d done this before. This wasn’t his first trip to the rodeo.

She rolled up behind him and barked out two words: “Move aside.”

He was immersed in greeting people and didn’t respond.

“Hey, I said move aside!”

“There are other people ahead of you, mam, you’ll have to get in line.”

Proof Positive

“I’m not waiting on that line!” She howled. “I’m not dragging this bag all around — just move aside!”

“I’ll help you when the line ends,” he offered.

“I’m not waiting! I want to get a seat. Just move aside!”

Two more employees strolled over. “Can we help you with your bag?”

“I want that man to move aside and let me get on my train. I am going to report you!” she said pointing her finger in the man’s face. “What’s your name?”

“John,” he said as he continued to check the boarding passengers.

She shoved herself in front of him to look at his name-tag, and then continued pushing past him to get on the escalator. She dragged her bag and clomped her boots onto the steps. John held his hand up to prevent others from getting behind her. The other employees took out their radios. I was too far away to hear exactly what they said, but I am certain I heard the word “unauthorized.”

John just shook his head. His fellow workers gathered around him, praising his restraint.

The queue of waiting passengers immediately became an informal reception line. Almost to the person they uttered words or gestures of sympathy or support.

“You’re a good man.”

“Whatever they pay you isn’t enough.”

“You’ve got the patience of a saint.”

“Do you believe her?”

“You’re a better man than me!”

People smiled, some extended their hand to shake his, some slapped him gently on the shoulder. John smile back acknowledging each gesture of kindness.

I don’t know the fate of the woman as she reached the platform, but John’s tolerance and gentle management of the situation brought forth an outpouring of kindness toward him. This is elevation — the feeling brought on by watching someone behave exceptionally well. Research shows that this goodness is then followed by appreciation and signs of affection for the individual whose actions are being observed.

In a matter of moments a squad of strangers had gathered around to acknowledge what they watched. This group got activated because they witnessed an automatic process of moral intuition. As a group we saw one person whose behavior triggered a type of disgust in us — and another whose actions elevated us.

New York University social psychologist Jonathan Haidt studies elevation and has also shown that moral disgust can be prompted by many things — and in this instance the woman’s demeaning, aggressive, and exaggerated sense of entitlement appalled those of us watching. What made this particularly interesting was an immediate contrast to a feeling of elevation for John.

The beat poet Allen Ginsberg advised us to “notice what you notice.” For every despicable action we encounter there is likely to be a display of gentleness, kindness, or compassion not too far behind. When you see something that turns you off in someone else’s behavior know that there are kindnesses lurking. Look for them, notice them, and don’t be surprised if they inspire you.

Thank you, John, for being who you are. Your benevolence — and those who honored it — moved me to write this.

Stylish woman photo available from Shutterstock

Moral Intuition and the Kindness of Strangers

Daniel Tomasulo, Ph.D.

Honored by Sharecare as one of the top ten online influencers on the issue of depression Dr. Dan Tomasulo, Ph.D., TEP, MFA, MAPP is a core faculty member at the Spirituality Mind Body Institute (SMBI), Teachers College, Columbia University, and holds a Ph.D. in psychology, MFA in writing, and Master of Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania.

He authors the daily column, Ask the Therapist, for, and developed the Dare to be Happy experiential workshops for Kripalu.   His award-winning memoir, American Snake Pit was released in 2018, and his next book, Learned Hopefulness, The Power of Positivity To Overcome Depressionis hailed as: “…the perfect recipe for fulfillment, joy, peace, and expansion of awareness.”  by Deepak Chopra, MD: Author of Metahuman: Unleashing Your Infinite Potential.

Learn more about Dr. Dan at his website.

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APA Reference
Tomasulo, D. (2018). Moral Intuition and the Kindness of Strangers. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 3, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 10 Mar 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.