The crux of a compassionate culture: the need for more privileged prosocial behavior

Our future

Our entire society is built on the belief that people will act prosocially for others, and that individuals with power and influence with do the “right thing.” However, I am fearful of the coming years. Where are we going as a society? Has technology made us closer, more caring, and deeply connected (see “Connected, but alone” on TED)? Have our science and mathematical models been used to benefit the world or served our self-interested motives (see 2008 Financial crash)? Monsanta has likely contaminated our food supply in the future and caused a national “gluten allergy” craze with their genetically-modified products (see more). Drone-led executions are serious debate in the Senate (see more).  Wall Street investors have made millions as main street continues to suffer from their actions. The problem lies with power.

Is power bad?

Power has been defined as the capacity to influence others. So, is power inherently bad? No. The process, our actions, define whether power was used for good or bad outcomes. Too often, we use power for control and self-serving reasons. Bullying behavior involves intentional aggressive behavior (harming others) that involves the recipient of the behavior feeling less power than the person performing the behavior. This behavior is prevalent in our U.S. culture today. Whether it’s academics abusing graduate students, Wall Street warriors collapsing the economy for personal gain, students in educational settings, or cyberbullying among coworkers and students.

To eliminate undesirable behavior, such as bullying, behavioral scientists have often followed a basic psychological principle: “The best way to decrease an undesirable behavior is to recognize and reward an opposite incompatible alternative.” However, in the case of bullying behavior, no such behavioral continuum existed until now.

What’s privileged prosocial behavior?

We define the incompatible opposite as privileged prosocial behavior. This involves any intentional prosocial behavior (helping others) that involves a powerful person helping the less powerful person. To create a culture of compassion, we need individuals to recognize their privileges and act on them to make a larger difference for others. A common form of privileged prosocial behavior is mentorship.

Mentorship is Key

As I reflect on my undergraduate and graduate years in the context of privileged prosocial behavior, I think about my mentors… the too many to count. Many remain close friends and continually remind me to take care of myself, but they don’t understand that these comments (which are directed to punish my unhealthy behaviors) have no impact on my choices. Why? Because, they didn’t work as hard as they did to watch me reap self-serving benefits. I bet their intention and hope was for me to mentor others. For me to spread my wisdom beyond their walls and through every future interactions I have with others. When they hear about my four-hour nights of sleep, they tell me to stop, but don’t understand that their prior privileged prosocial behavior is my driving force. I owe it to them to “pay it forward.”

Pay It Forward

I wonder if we know what our undergraduate, master’s and doctoral degrees actually mean and confirm to us… For most, it’s a phrase like this:

“To the one thus referred to,____ (recipient of degree), we have by virtue of this diploma, most freely and fully granted and confirmed all the rights, honors, privileges belonging to the degree of ____ (degree type), among ourselves and all nations. 

As recipients of a degree(s), we have privileges that should be passed on to others. Our responsibility is to help others obtain these same rights, honors, and privileges.

My request is simple: 1) Help more friends, colleagues, and students by allowing them to see their privileges; 2) Mentor and be mentored to experience empathy as both the recipient and provider of privileged prosocial behavior; 3) set up environments, systems, and processes that facilitate privileged prosocial behavior. If we each commit to these three requests, together, we can cultivate more compassion to meet the needs of all people worldwide.


~ by shanemccarty on April 30, 2013.

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