Science-Tested Tips to Be a Better Person by Christian Miller
We Can Encourage Our Better Angels
Social science points to several ways we can be more virtuous people
Role Models. Role models can help us see the world in a new way. They can be some of the people closest to us – my role models include my parents and my college roommate.
Or they can be people we don’t know, such as the Polish sewer worker Leopold Socha, who saved 10 Jews from the Nazis by protecting them underground for more than a year. They can even be examples from stories, like the good Samaritan or the bishop who forgives Jean Valjean in “Les Miserables.”
Role models reshape our imagination, serve as great sources of wisdom and advice, and perhaps most important, inspire us to change our lives and become better people.
Research supports the importance of role models. In a 1984 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, psychologists at Cleveland State University paired 112 participants with a stranger (actually an actor) in the same room.
After a while, the pair heard a crash in the next room and cries of, “Oh, my foot. Damn, I think it’s broken…” What the participant did next was rated on a scale of 1 (do nothing) to 10 (going to the other room and offering help).
When the stranger/actor “remained in his seat and essentially ignored the crash,” according to the study, participating helped at a level of 6.21. It was a different story if the stranger “looked up from his work and said, ‘What was that?’ and walked into the control room and asked, ‘What happened? Are you OK? Let me help you!” In that case, participants sprang into action, helping at a level of 9.05.
…Education in self-awareness. For several decades, psychologists have found that in emergencies, we are unlikely to help if the people around us aren’t doing anything to help.
This includes when someone is crying out in pain from a serious electric shock or even when a bully is beating up a child. Why? One important part of the story is that we are afraid of embarrassing ourselves in front of complete strangers.
The fear of being embarrassed (or shamed, ostracized, ridiculed and so on) isn’t just a relic from our middle-school years. It is a serious obstacle to our helping other people, and we don’t always realize the powerful role it can play.
By learning from the psychological research, we can respond differently the next time we hesitate in an emergency. We can remind ourselves that someone’s life is more important than what a stranger thinks of us.