The Golden Rule is Psychologically Valid

By Joni Miller, Ph.D. © 2020



I believe if I’m nice to someone, they should be nice to me. But, somehow in my warped mind, I also believe if I’m mean, grumpy, or angry to someone … they still should be nice to me.


I want people to be nice no matter what I do. And that’s not the way the world works.


The Golden Rule says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This doesn’t mean the person you’re standing  

in front of will automatically “do unto you” as you “do unto them.” Sometimes our kindness will get an angry response. Or vice versa.


One day I went to the grocery store in a bad mood. I was grieving the loss of a family member and wanted only to stay home and curl up in a ball. But here I was traipsing through the aisles of my grocery store, not happy about it, reaching for something on a top shelf and having problems. A woman came over to get it for me. Her calmness and kindness softened my mood. I was able to look her in the eyes and sincerely say, “thank you.” I was also more present and focused for the rest of my shopping excursion and my morning.


A simple act from her that rippled out through me to others with whom I interacted.


The Golden Rule isn’t a guarantee people will immediately respond in kind to what you do. However, it does mean if you wish people to show you consideration, you greatly increase the odds if you show consideration first.


Psychological research confirms we unconsciously mimic how others are behaving. From our earliest experiences we are watching and learning from others.  A baby learns emotions through mirroring the adults surrounding the baby. As the child grows, observation becomes an important part of the growth process. Children mirror and mimic what others do, which is why it’s important to model good behavior. Your teenager learning to drive won’t automatically drive the speed limit just because you say so. How fast have you driven the prior 16 years? They were watching.


Even when we’re adults we learn and act by observing. We want to fit in with a group, so we wait to offer our opinion until others have spoken. We don’t know the process for ordering at a new “serve yourself” restaurant so we watch what others are doing. When my husband and I are hiking and see a young couple holding hands we’re likely to reach for each other’s hand. Watching others can serve as a reminder of things we like or don’t like.  


This is often easier to observe with eating behavior. People unconsciously eat the same types and quantity of food as those around them.1 Have you ever gone out with friends and ordered dessert because everyone else did? Or had a pre-dinner drink to fit in with the tribe? Eaten more or less because others are?


The Golden Rule is psychologically valid. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Not because it’s a rule, or what you may have been told in Sunday School, but because it works. What are you modeling for others? What type of world do you want to live in?


What you put out into the world can come back to you, but not on a one-for-one basis. You won’t automatically get kindness when you are kind, get courteous listening when you give it, or get respect when you give it.  But we mirror and mimic others on a subconscious level, and others mirror and mimic us.


Model the behavior you wish to see in the world. This can create a domino effect of others doing the same.


By Joni Miller, Ph.D. © 2020


1 https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0031027


Photo by Joel Mott on Unsplash



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