Leading by Example Really Does Work

Image Credit: Tim Robberts/DigitalVision/GettyImages

You've probably seen that (maybe falsely attributed) Gandhi quote on a mug or a magnet somewhere: Be the change you wish to see in the world. It's a good reminder to live your values, even when you're feeling small or powerless. It might also be undergirded by human psychology in ways we didn't predict.

Psychologists at the University of Texas at Austin have just released a study on prosocial behavior, or the things we do that are good for society as a whole. There's evidence the viral imagery is actually more than a metaphor, and that prosocial behavior truly does transmit from person to person.

One of the biggest drivers is something called "goal contagion," "whereby witnessing prosocial actions lead people to adopt the underlying goal associated with the observed behavior, such as caring for others' well-being." Not only were study participants motivated to replicate the prosocial behavior, but they began to improvise and spread it in new ways. The desire to do good and the actions which produced good results actually mutated, in other words.

This has big implications both at work and in the rest of the world. We've already got great evidence about how prosocial behavior can help you earn promotions, enjoy buying "green" products, and even soften the sting of paying taxes. It's also why we love giving gifts. If you're feeling dubious about your own generosity these days — after all, the news is pretty overwhelming — don't worry: We can teach ourselves to do more that's prosocial, and there's no better way to be a vector.