“Be the change you want to see in the world” is often quoted, but is there any real basis to believe that this is an effective way of influencing our surroundings, of influencing the people we meet and the society we live in?
When we hear Gandhi’s quote, or are told that TV can increase or encourage violent behavior, it is hard to understand that this is more than a philosophy, more than an opinion; this is a scientific fact.
When we see someone, even just a depiction of someone, doing something then we immediately picture ourselves doing this. This allows us to learn just by seeing, or to vicariously experience how another is living. This is not an ability which humans alone posses, since everything from apes, dogs, to bumblebees are capable of this on one level or another.
Being able to “mirror” the behavior of others internally, activating the same neurons as when we do it ourselves, allows us to not only learn from watching, but also to experience the emotions of another: empathy. The mirror neurons allow us to personally experience beyond our own body, and allow us to feel the joy, as well as pain, of another.
The ability to mirror emotions is limited to animals with a limbic system (found in the middle of the brain), which include among others mammals, elephants, and dolphins. But, it doesn’t include fish or reptiles, which may be the reason people who lack empathy are called “cold blooded” or referred to as reptiles.
Connecting all this to Bandura’s classic research and social cognitive theory helps illustrate several points. In Bandura’s research in the 60’s it was found that children not only learned to hit a doll by seeing other people, and videos of people, hitting it. They also learned the action by just seeing a cartoon of the doll being hit.
If the consequences surrounding the doll being hit were neutral or absent, then the action would still arise in the play phase –in which the children were put in a room full of toys also containing the doll- of the experiment. If the consequences were positive, then the children hit the doll far more often. When the consequences were negative, then the children were less likely to hit the doll.
What does this mean? Well, it means that when we do something, other people are likely going to then consider it alright to do the same thing, especially if nothing bad happens right away. It means we literally inspire each other.
This is especially true if the consequences of the action are perceived as being positive: for instance social recognition or increased wealth. We see this in the glorification of sociopathic narcissism embodied by people like actors, bankers, captains of industry, and even serial killers and mass murderers (because of the attention they get in the media).
We have to therefore be responsible not just in how we react to what others do, but in what we do. In what we represent in the world, what we give importance in our lives and through our behavior. If we do not think that someone else should be doing something, then we should not be doing it ourselves. At the same time that means if we think someone else should be doing something about a problem then we should look to ourselves and see what we can do.
As Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative also argues: maybe being the change is more than just a nice soundbite. Maybe embodying the way you think people should act is actually the key to making a better world. And when we also factor in that our behaviors reinforce neural networks, meaning what you do becomes habits, then it becomes clear we have to be the change as much for ourselves as for others.
2) Bandura, A. Ross, D., & Ross, S.A (1961). Transmission of aggression through the imitation of aggressive models. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 63, 575-582