In the summer of 2014, students from more than 200 countries enrolled in Professor of Psychology Scott Plous’s Social Psychology “MOOC” (massive open online course). The class was offered by Wesleyan, hosted by Coursera.org, and drew more than 200,000 students. The final assignment of the course, “The Day of Compassion,” asked students to live 24 hours as compassionately as possible and to analyze the experience using social psychology. Several thousand students completed the assignment, and more than 200 of the highest scoring essays were then voted on by the class to decide which one deserved a Day of Compassion Award sponsored by Social Psychology Network.
Qian Zhang, a stay-at-home mother who lives in the Chinese city of Chengdu, won the grand prize for intervening when she heard a boy being beaten in a neighboring apartment. For her efforts, Zhang was flown to Atlanta, Ga. on Dec. 6 to meet famed anthropologist and primatologist Jane Goodall and Plous for a Day of Compassion Award presentation. Remembering what it was like to be beaten during her own childhood, Zhang decided to “do the right thing” despite strong cultural norms to keep silent. After knocking on her neighbors’ door, she calmed down the parents and got the boy to safety. The next day, she returned to her neighbors’ apartment and shared social psychology tips for reducing conflict and improving family life. She also gradually got to know the boy and began helping him with school work, which had been a source of tension with his parents. Since the Day of Compassion, there have been no further beatings, and Qian Zhang has set up a group of mothers in her apartment building to reduce domestic violence. Read her award-winning essay online.
In addition to meeting Jane Goodall, Social Psychology Network, which is managed by Plous, donated $1,000 to the Jane Goodall Institute in Qian Zhang’s name, $100 to the Institute in the name of 10 other students who received Honorable Mention, and $10 in the name of the first 800 other students who completed the assignment—a total of $10,000 in support of the Institute. “Teaming up with Jane Goodall to present this award was a wonderful experience,” Plous said. “All told, the presentation event lasted around an hour and included a discussion with Dr. Goodall about Qian Zhang’s impressive work, compassion, social psychology, and the Jane Goodall Institute.” Founded by Jane Goodall, the Jane Goodall Institute is a global nonprofit whose initiatives include Roots & Shoots, a community action and learning program focused on compassion, respect, and positive social change.