Happy New Year!
On the last day of 2018, I listened to an episode of Hidden Brain, a podcast hosted by Shankar Vedantam. Using science and storytelling, Hidden Brain explores how our unconscious minds influence our behavior and biases, and it is one of my favorite podcasts for this social-science junkie. It was a rerun of one of their very first episodes ever, and it was about compassion. One of its stories was about a London woman named Kellie who took an online psychology class with Wesleyan University professor Scott Plous and was inspired to apply the lessons she learned about empathy to real life.
In the process, she befriended a homeless man named Simon who frequented the area around a coffee shop she’d visit while waiting for her husband to get off from work. I won’t go into details (you can find out more here), but suffice it to say that as she learned more about him and his situation, she discovered that he hadn’t seen or talked with his mother (whom he adored) for several years. Not that he was mad with her, but family circumstances had prevented him from getting in touch. So Kellie tracked down his mother and let Simon use her phone to talk to her. They had a brief, heartfelt conversation in which his mother cried because she hadn’t known whether her son was alive or dead. Afterward, Kellie bought him a bus ticket so he could go see her. That was the last she’s seen of him.
One of the concepts Kellie learned in Professor Plous’s class was the norm of reciprocity, meaning that if you are nice to someone, they are more likely to do the same for you. And the positivity that sprouts starts to feed upon itself. As Vedantam relates, “…have you actually become more proactive because you sort of say, I realize that I actually can make a difference? And maybe I can’t make a difference on a mass scale, but I certainly made a difference in one person’s life, and that teaches me that I could make differences in other people’s lives, too.”
As the new year begins, we often make resolutions to change, to improve ourselves, to do better. I won’t go into tiresome entreaties here about how you should make a resolution to be a safer driver in 2019, get off your phone when you’re behind the wheel, how being a better driver can make you a better person, or blah-blah-blah. And I’m not naïve enough to suggest that compassion and Kumbaya will solve the world’s traffic safety problems.
But, it is worth imagining how you could harness the norm of reciprocity in making our roads safer for everyone—and yes, even you can make that difference starting this very day. In these tumultuous times, compassion is all something we could use a lot more of, everywhere.