This post was written by a student in last summer’s PSY 13 course, and is shared with the student’s permission…
I used to be involved with Tufts Free Compliments and after reading Chapter 11, specifically the bit about positive psychology, and emailing Professor Sommers about it, I decided to post about my experiences and observations on here. It’s important to note though that I’m no longer affiliated with the group and these are just my reflections two years after the fact.
I’m sure that plenty of you guys are familiar with TFC and what we used to do, standing outside Tisch complimenting passerby. I actually used to be the president of the club and was in charge of all sorts of things like setting up events and promoting the group on campus. I ran into some really interesting problems. The biggest one, and most notable was that there was a large group of students that hated us. I mean really hated us. I remember I was in Tisch one time doing homework and I overheard a group of people discussing how “creepy” and “weird” the group and the people in it were. Now we obviously didn’t think that, in our minds we were just outside having a good time and at the very least, trying to make people smile but what was most interesting to me, especially since starting this course is how a positive psychology group, one whose mission was to make people happy, could invoke such visceral reactions. It wasn’t just that one time I heard it; being creepy, non-genuine, and off-putting was a critique the group drew time and time again and is largely why we are no longer operational.
I think the answer is two-fold. First, our target group was students and students tend to be more stressed. It’s that whole “feel good, do good” and “feel bad, do bad” idea, that mood and stressors can affect and alter our behavior and opinions. Second, was the issue of anonymity. Few people know this but we did much more than just complimenting outside. We spent a lot of time coming up with other ways to increase the morale of campus with things like putting compliments in library books, drawing smiles in the snow, and things of that nature. When people knew it was TFC doing the event, the amount of negative responses was enormous. I even had people come up to me to tell me off in person. However, when our name wasn’t attached to the activity as with the compliments in books or putting balloons up on campus, the response was overwhelmingly positive. It seems that the action is not truly altruistic until we were able to separate the label of TFC from the positive psych action and people didn’t perceive those actions as helping or beneficial until the source wasn’t identifiable.
What do you guys think? As a member of the group, I think the experience was largely one of the better ones I had in college and while I personally don’t care what others think, I have to admit, I was always curious as to why the group was hated so much. On paper you’d think a club that’s purpose to make people smile was well received, just as you’d think that with 38 bystanders, Kitty Genovese would have been helped but as we’ve seen, that’s clearly not the case.