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The Not So Golden Rule

I am willing to wager that you’ve heard of the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. In other words, treat others the way you would wish to be treated.

This “ethic of reciprocity” has been expressed in many moral maxims and religious and spiritual traditions. It has even become a part of many formal educational systems.

As with many commonly accepted directives and norms, I hadn’t put much thought into Golden Rule until fairly recently. After all, most of us don’t question commonly accepted beliefs. In contemplating its significance, however, I was somewhat surprised to realize that I do not agree with the Golden Rule at all!

Though I believe that there is an element of common humanity in each of us, we are also all unique individuals with different needs, desires and circumstances. What would be best for me to do unto someone else may not at all be what is in my best interest. For instance, it might be best for a parent to change their baby’s diaper and burp them after meals. But having or expecting the baby to do the same for her parents is clearly ludicrous! This is obviously a rather absurd example intended to illustrate the point, but there are also numerous subtle examples of this in practice. Can you think of a time when you did something for somebody that you would have loved or appreciated only to have the other person respond negatively? Their reaction might have been due to the fact that you projected what might have been best for you in a given situation onto someone else who may have felt differently.

Rejecting the Golden Rule invites curiosity as well as empathy. In order to figure out what someone would have done unto them, we must get curious and step outside of our frame of reference and into their shoes. Evaluating and trying to understand and even feel things from another person’s perspective is at the heart of empathy. It allows us to get outside of our heads and connect with somebody from a heart to heart rather than a head to head orientation. We often complicate this process. Sometimes it is as simple as asking a person what they want or need.

Given that the Golden Rule isn’t the best way of navigating the world, I assumed that the opposite of the Rule would presumably be true: do not do unto other as you would not have them do unto you. I was wrong.

Yet again, upon further consideration, I realized that the “anti-Golden Rule” is equally misguided. Again, examples of this in practice abound, but I will share just one example to illustrate the point: Just because you would not appreciate going out to eat sushi (or the color orange or being called “honey” or flying on airplanes, etc., etc.) does not mean that someone else would not. Can you think of instances in your life where you’ve wrongly assumed that other people preferences and sensitivities?

In short, both the Golden Rule and the anti-Golden Rule are ways in which we project ourselves onto others. Doing so compromises connection and creativity and keeps us naive to others’ experiences. In many ways, the Golden Rule and its opposite disguise themselves as compassion when in reality they serve as barriers to understanding.

On the other hand, interacting with others from a place of curiosity and empathy allows us to have a deeper understanding and build better relationships — both with others and ourselves.

What are some common truisms/maxims/norms that you take for granted?

In what ways might accepting these things as fact be impacting you?

The Not So Golden Rule

Pratibha Anand

Pratibha Anand is a 2021 MD candidate at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. Outside of school, Pratibha is a passionate travel enthusiast who holds a deep commitment to service. She speaks both Spanish and French and enjoys hiking mountains, yoga, SCUBA diving, and attending local concerts and theater productions. Stay up to date with Pratibha’s writing at

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APA Reference
Anand, P. (2018). The Not So Golden Rule. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 11 Jul 2018 (Originally: 10 Jul 2018)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 11 Jul 2018
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