Students in Social Psychology are invited to complete a participant-observation assignment on the psychology of compassion. The purpose of this assignment is to put the course material into action in daily contexts, applying social psychology research findings on attributional biases, bystander intervention, conflict resolution, empathy, and so on. Successful completion of the assignment will add ten points to your cumulative point total for the semester.
Part I: Participate in the Day of Compassion
To complete this assignment, choose a day that will be your "Day of Compassion" and try your absolute best to live each minute of that day as compassionately as possible. In other words, for a full 24-hour period you should do your best to reduce suffering of others, help those in need, be considerate and respectful, and avoid causing harm to any living being.
When carrying out this assignment, leave no behavior unexamined -- from watching TV to eating lunch to decisions about giving time or money to others. That is, don't limit yourself to simply holding the door open for a stranger or petting a lonely dog; think about all the unnecessary suffering in the world, and strive for the greatest impact and deepest level of compassion without being phony or insincere. It is up to you to define what compassion is and to decide how best to realize it.
If you are already quite compassionate, try being compassionate toward groups you don't often focus on, and even if your actions don't differ much from how you normally behave, be sure to carefully observe and analyze what transpires during the experience. If outside events make it difficult for you to participate on the day you chose, or if you feel dissatisfied with your performance of the assignment, feel free to repeat the exercise on a later day.
Note: To minimize any bias in social reactions, it is best if you do not tell others about the class assignment until after the Day of Compassion is over.
Part II: Write About Your Experience
At the beginning of class on day the assignment is due, turn in a social psychological analysis of what the day was like (limited to one typewritten doubled-spaced page using 12-point font and 1" margins). Here are a few sample questions you might address:
"The problem is whether we are determined to go in the direction of compassion or not. If we are, then can we reduce the suffering to a minimum? If I lose my direction, I have to look for the North Star, and I go to the north. That does not mean I expect to arrive at the North Star. I just want to go in that direction."
~Thich Nhat Hanh, Being Peace (1987)
- How did you define compassion, and who were the recipients of your efforts?
- If your behavior was different than normal, which person did you like more: the "Day of Compassion you" or the "normal you"? If you preferred the "Day of Compassion you," what are the psychological factors that prevent this "you" from coming out?
- What are the psychological costs and benefits of behaving compassionately? In your view, do the benefits outweigh the costs?
- How did others respond to your compassion? Do you think they noticed a difference in your behavior? What attributions did people make for your behavior, and why?
- If you wanted to encourage others to behave as you did during the Day of Compassion, what psychological techniques would you use? How can social psychology be used to foster a more compassionate society?
- If you were to predict your behavior one month from now, do you think it will be changed in any way as a result of participating in the Day of Compassion? If so, how? If not, why not?
Note: This assignment is intended to be engaging and informative, but you can opt out of it if you prefer. As stated in the course syllabus: "If at any point you prefer not to complete an assignment (or if your attempt to complete it is unsuccessful), you can still receive full credit by turning in a one-page report discussing the psychological factors that prevented you from carrying out the assignment."