Psychology Professor Dr. Matthew Winslow helps to develop "Random Acts of Kindness" app

Psychology Professor Dr. Matthew Winslow helps to develop "Random Acts of Kindness" app

Teens and younger children may learn to be kinder and more empathetic by playing a game on their phones, thanks to a new, interactive app, “Random App of Kindness” (RAKi), created by a group of social science researchers, including Eastern Kentucky University psychology professor Dr. Matthew Winslow.

Prior research by Sara Konrath at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, who led the team that developed the app, found that empathy in young adults has been declining by 40 percent since 1979. With many people believing smartphone use impairs empathy, she and her team decided to try to create an app that could instead make people more compassionate.

“Young people are heavy users of mobile phones, and our team realized that there is a major content gap in such devices,” Konrath said. “There are very few smartphone games or apps that directly encourage kindness and caring in children. Those that do exist are rarely rigorously tested to see if they have the intended effect. We hoped to marry scientific principles with fun and engaging design.”

RAKi is available free of charge in the iTunes App Store and Google Play Android Market.

The app was developed by Konrath and a multidisciplinary team of collaborators: Brad Bushman (Ohio State University), Rich Tolman (University of Michigan), and Winslow. Leading mobile-game developers from the technology development company HabitatSeven worked closely with the researchers to use evidence-based approaches to envision, create, and evaluate it. HopeLab, a social innovation firm, also supported the development of early prototypes. The project was funded through a grant from the John Templeton Foundation.

Winslow was involved in identifying the theoretical basis for the mobile app and with its design.

“We were very concerned with basing the various games on solid research about empathy and compassion,” said Winslow, who teaches a class about empathy, and has conducted research of his own on how to increase empathy.

Winslow also emphasized the importance of targeting children and teens.

“We know that empathy and compassion are not fixed qualities but, rather, are skills that can be improved,” he said. “Kids in this age range don’t yet have set-in-stone ideas about how empathy and compassion work, so showing them that they can improve can have lasting benefits.”

RAKi includes a series of nine mini-games that each aim to strengthen a specific, basic building block of empathy. For example, one game helps players to better identify which facial expressions signify particular emotions. The games were designed and user-tested with input from teens. The researchers conducted a randomized control trial examining the effects of playing with the RAKi app for two months, compared to playing a control game (the app “Two Dots”) for the same length of time.

Preliminary results suggest that children and teens ages 10-17 who played RAKi for two months had more compassionate emotional responses to another teen in distress (compared to those who played the control game). In addition, the RAKi app led to more helping behavior, and a reduction in beliefs that it was okay to use aggression as a way to solve problems. The researchers hope to publish their results in a peer-reviewed journal in the future.

Importantly, teens are positively engaging with the game. Some participants liked that it made morals and values fun instead of lecturing, while others enjoyed not knowing how to use the app at the beginning and having to figure it out on their own. This gave them a sense of accomplishment after beating a difficult level.

Teens also were excited to help others, both in the game and in real life. After playing RAKi for two months, one teen couldn’t wait to tell researchers that she planned to make blankets to donate to a local children’s hospital.

More information about Random App of Kindness is available at www.rakigame.com, including videos and screenshots of the app. Information about the results of the research study will be updated as it becomes available.

Published on February 10, 2017