In the Garden of Good and Evil

From altruism to violent conflict.

Education for Helping, Non-Aggression, Active Bystandership

In addition to socialization, education/training can promote caring, heroism.

In recent years there have been projects to train or educate children and adults to be helpful, even “heroic,” when they see others’ need (or the need of a whole group of people or society), or compassionate, or not violent. Can such trainings accomplish their aims?

Most research has focused on child rearing as the roots of personal dispositions to caring and helping—on experiences in interaction with parents, teachers and the guidance they provide. There has also been interest in experiences with peers, and the influence of culture. Sensitivity to the child’s needs, warmth and affection, adults emphasizing positive values and leading children to behave according to them, helping children learn ways to modulate intense emotions all contribute to later caring about and helping others. Engaging children to help others is also important. It leads to “learning by doing,” as anthropologists and my research with 5th and 6th graders found, increasing later helping. 

Such socialization and experiences lead children to see people in a positive light, to develop empathy, and a feeling of responsibility for others’ welfare. They can also develop competence and skills in helping. The circumstances surrounding the need for help can make helping more or less likely. For example, with more people present each person may feel less responsible to help, or having a leadership role may make a person feel more responsible when the need for help arises. But even then who we are, the personal characteristics and inclinations we have developed, make a difference.   

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Does training or education also lead to helping in the real world, and can it do so even for people who have not experienced socialization for caring, or experienced negative socialization? The effects of trainings are not always evaluated; the effects of most of those I mention have been evaluated.  Because passivity by some witnesses—or bystanders—to others’ need increases passivity by others, and such passivity allows the unfolding or evolution of increasingly harmful actions, I have been using the term active bystandership for intervening in a helpful manner.

In the famous Rodney King incident, a couple of police officers in LA were beating Rodney King with their batons as he was lying on the ground, while several officers stood around watching. This was captured on video and became infamous. I was asked to develop a training, to be used in police academies in California, aimed to make the use of unnecessary force by officers unlikely. It focused on active bystandership by police officers, who usually work in pairs, to redirect the interaction of their partner with a citizen if it became increasingly heated, or to stop violent action if it has already begun. The training intended to bring about change both in officers’ thinking, so that they see halting rather than supporting harmful actions as good team work, and in their actions.

I have also developed, with associates, a training for students in schools to intervene when fellow students harass, intimidate, verbally or physically harm—or bully—other students. We provided information based on past research about what inhibits people from helping others, as well as about the powerful impact that bystanders can have on other bystanders. In one of my studies, there was a crash and sounds of distress from another room. Depending on what one person (my confederate) said the frequency of helping by the real participant—going into the other room—ranged from about 25% to 100%.  In the training students role played engaging other bystanders as allies in helping. Acting together increases impact and reduces risk. We also worked on skills in intervening in as positive ways as possible. We discussed what past experiences might lead a student to bully others, and the impact on the targets of such behavior. In two schools where 8th and 10th graders were trained harmful behavior decreased by 20%, in comparison to two similar schools where students were not trained. We did not evaluate the impact of the training on those who were probably most affected, student trainers. One of them said: I used to do such things, and never realized the harmful effects of my behavior.

My associates and I have also worked on reconciliation after the genocide in Rwanda, training groups ranging from the staff of local organizations to national leaders, and creating educational radio programs including a radio drama that has been extremely popular since 2004 and is ongoing. We provide information about the origins of violence between groups, the impact of violence on people, avenues to the prevention of violence and reconciliation, and examples of active bystanders resisting leaders who promote violence. Studies evaluating the effects of these programs showed more positive attitudes by Hutus and Tutsis toward each other, less trauma symptoms, and more empathy for survivors of the genocide, but also for bystanders and even perpetrators. Those who listened to our educational radio drama both reported and actually showed, after one year, more willingness say what they believe, and were more independent of authorities, both important for less violence in a society. They also engaged in more reconciliation activities, approaching people whose family members they have harmed, possibly killed, or people who have harmed their family.    

Another training project, initiated by Philip Zimbardo, the Heroic Imagination Project, like our training with students, uses information about what inhibits helping. It also provides examples of people who have engaged in heroic action. It promotes “situational awareness,” understanding situations so that people are more likely to appropriately respond to them. The project leaders are aware that initially what they can expect is “active bystandership,” but hope that by engaging in helping people “learn by doing” (both my terminology) and become more ready to respond in dangerous situations that require heroism. I have found learning by doing even by rescuers who have saved lives in the Holocaust. 

There are also trainings in compassion, using primarily varied meditation practices. In such practices people focus their attention, often on their breath. They observe and then let go of thoughts that emerge. In “loving kindness” meditation they send loving thoughts to other people, themselves, and the world. Recent studies have shown that these trainings have varied positive effects: more positive feelings for the targets of loving feelings in the course of mediation, more hopefulness in children. They also activate empathy related regions of the brain. In at least one study such a training also led to more compassionate action toward a suffering person.     

Neither my associates and I, in our evaluation studies of students, and in Rwanda, nor apparently others, have assessed whether such trainings have greater or lesser effects on people with varying characteristics. Could it be that only those change who have a reasonable degree of prior empathy or responsibility for others’ welfare? In one project my student Darren Spielman and I found that training aggressive boys reduced their aggression. Initially these boys’ saw people as more hostile, human nature as more negative, and felt less responsibility for others’ welfare than non-aggressive boys.

The training consisted of role playing situations that tend to evoke aggression in these boys, such as someone taking the seat where a boy left his bag, to sit with his friends at lunch. They enacted these situations first in the way they would usually unfold, and then in constructive ways. They videotaped and discussed their role plays. In the course of a series of sessions we introduced ideas about psychological needs that all people have-- for security, for feeling effective, for a positive identity, for positive connection to other people, and for understanding one’s world. We  discussed fulfilling these needs by destructive actions, as they have been doing (actions that harm others and also ultimately oneself), or constructive actions. Thus, the training provided both a way of thinking, and practice and skills in constructive ways of fulfilling needs.  

An evaluation study showed that in one school, with a supportive environment, both boys who received this training, and aggressive boys who have not, became less aggressive. In another school with a more challenging environment aggressive boys who did not receive the training became more aggressive—as judged by teachers and in-school suspensions—but boys who had the training became slightly less aggressive, with a clear difference between the two groups. Boys who received the training also came to see people as less hostile. It is a negative past that usually leads to hostility and aggression. That certain experiences can lead to transformation is consistent with “altruism born of suffering,” that some people who have been victimized, whether in the home, or by political violence, devote themselves to preventing harm or helping people who have been harmed.

It seems that “training,” both direct education and public education through media, can help people become active bystanders, as well as less aggressive. The combination of socialization for caring and helping, and training may be especially powerful. Training, that is, new learning experience, can also counteract prior negative experiences. For this to happen, the training has to be extensive enough, and presumably has to be solidified by applications to behavior.

A version of this material will appear in Staub, E. (in press). The roots of goodness: inclusive caring, moral courage, altruism born of suffering, active bystandership and heroism. New York: Oxford University Press. 

Ervin Staub, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

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