hazel_rose_markus's picture
Davis-Brack Professor in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University; Co-author, Clash! How to Thrive in a Multicultural World, and Co-founder, Stanford SPARQ (Social Psychological Answers to Real-world Questions).
The Platinum Rule: Dense, Heavy, But Worth It

The variously attributed Platinum Rule holds that we should do unto others as they would have us do unto them. The most important news is that there is growing evidence that every endeavor involving social connection—friendship and marriage, education, health care, organizational leadership, interracial relationships and international aid, to name a few—is more effective to the extent that it adheres to this behavioral guide. The reason that the beneficial consequences of holding to the rule will remain important news is that the Platinum Rule is not simple and hewing to it is tough, especially in an individualist culture that fosters the wisdom of one’s own take on reality. Following the dictates of the Platinum Rule is so tough, in fact, that we routinely ignore it and then find it surprising and newsworthy when a new study discovers its truth all over again.

The challenge of holding to the Platinum Rule begins with the realization that it is not the Golden Rule—do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The Golden Rule is also a good behavioral guide and one that shows up across the religious traditions (e.g., in Judaism—what is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor; in Confucianism—do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself). Yet built into the very foundation of the Golden Rule is that the assumption that what is good, desirable, just, respectful, and helpful for ME will also be good, desirable, just, respectful and helpful for YOU (or should be, and even it isn’t right now, trust me, it will be eventually).

Even with good friends or partners this is often not the case. For example, from your perspective you may be certain you are giving me support and fixing my problem. Yet what I would prefer and find supportive and have you do unto me is for you to listen to me and my analysis of the problem. And in the many cases in which we now strive to connect with people across social class, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, religion, and region of the world, some disconnect between how you think you should treat people and how they would like to be treated is almost certainly the case. Doing unto others as they would have you do unto them requires knowledge of others, their history and circumstances, what matters to them, appreciating and acknowledging the value of difference, and accommodating one’s actions accordingly.

At the base of the successful application of the Platinum Rule is the realization that one’s own way is one way and may not be the only or the best way. Yes, not all ways are good; some are uninformed, corrupt and evil. Yet the findings from cultural science are increasingly robust. There is more than one good or right or moral way to raise a child, educate a student, cope with adversity, motivate a workforce, develop an economy, build a democracy, be healthy and experience well-being.

For many of us, what is good for me and what I assume will be good for you too is likely grounded in what cultural psychologists call a WEIRD perspective, that is, a Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic perspective. For the 75 percent of the world’s population who cannot be so classified, (i.e., the majority of the world, including, for example, many people in North America without a college degree or with non-Western heritage), who I am, what matters to me, what I hope to be, and what I would most like done unto me may not match what seems so obviously and naturally good and appropriate from the WEIRD perspective.

Beyond knowledge of the other and the appreciation of difference, the Platinum Rule requires something even harder—holding my own perspective at bay while thinking and feeling my way into the position of the other and then creating space for this perspective. Such effort requires a confluence of cognitive, affective and motivational forces. Some researchers call this psychological work perspective taking, some empathy, some compassion, still others social or emotional intelligence. Whatever the label, the results are worth the effort.

When colleges ask students from working class or underrepresented minority backgrounds to write about matters to them or to give voice to their worries about not fitting in college, they are happier, healthier, and outperform students not given these opportunities. Managers who encourage employees to reflect on the purpose and meaning of their work have more effective teams than those who don’t. The odds of persuading another in an argument are greater if you acknowledge the opponent’s moral position before asserting your own. Research from across the social sciences supports the idea that just recognizing the views, values, needs, wants, hopes, or fears of others can produce better teaching, medicine, policing, team leadership, and conflict resolution. Taking their views into account may change the world.

Perhaps even more newsworthy than the successes of understanding what matters to others are the many Platinum Rule fails. Government and private donors distributed billions following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, much of it spent doing what the donors believed they would do if they were in the place of those devastated by the disaster. One notable project was a campaign to underscore the good health consequences of hand washing to people without soap or running water. Many humanitarians now argue that relief efforts would be less costly and more effective if instead of giving people what donors think they need–water, food, first aid, blankets, training—they delivered what the recipients themselves say they need. In most cases, this is money.

Whether independent North Americans who, according to some surveys, are becoming more self-focused by the year can learn the value of the Platinum Rule is an open question. To this point, the science suggests it would be moral, efficient, and wise.