Rethinking the Golden Rule

7 min readFeb 22, 2024

By Gabrielle Sills

As kids many of us were taught the Golden Rule: treat others the way you want to be treated.

I can remember the first time, however, I realized that the Golden Rule might not be totally right.

I was in college, and I, along with two other girls, were entering into the lottery for a dorm room together. We were towards the bottom of the lottery, so we got stuck with a “three-room-double,” which was a large common space and two small bedrooms. I can’t remember if or why we didn’t discuss before moving in how we would be splitting up those two small bedrooms. We were most likely wanting to avoid what would clearly be a contentious discussion. Two in one room and one in the other, decided by flipping a coin? Rotating every trimester so that we each had a shot at our own room?

Anyhow, I showed up to our three-room-double that fall, and one of the girls had already moved into the single room, leaving the other room with bunk beds for me and my other friend.

I was seeing red. Weren’t we going to discuss this? Did I miss some conversation about how we were going to approach this very important decision? I would never have just presumed that I could have the single room, simply because I had arrived first. I would never kick off a year of living together like that, and yet here someone was doing it so unabashedly. I found it deeply upsetting.

That was not the crazy part, though.

The part that I could not make sense of was that my other friend — who also had just been forced into a bunk bed situation for a whole year — didn’t seem to care all that much. She noticed it, acknowledged the rudeness, and definitely would have loved to have the solo bedroom for the year, but she really didn’t seem phased at all. Didn’t she see the selfishness? Didn’t she care? Why was I spiraling and she was doing just fine?

We’re not all the same

The Golden Rule tells us to treat others the way we want to be treated — but what I realized that day is not not everyone wants to be treated in the same way.

I, for example, care deeply about people returning my calls if I’ve left a voicemail, but another friend of mine says she doesn’t think twice about it. My colleague at my old company would go bonkers when our manager asked her for daily check-ins on a project. I, on the other hand, liked the accountability these check-ins offered.

We’re all human, and we all want to be treated well. But “well” means different things to different people. Our brains react very differently to the same stimuli.

It turns out there’s a good explanation for this.

When I worked at Google, we had a training that was supposed to improve team collaboration by teaching us about different working styles. It focused on a model called SCARF, which resonated with me at the time, but that I’d forgotten about until recently when I read Your Brain at Work by Dr. David Rock, who happens to be the creator of SCARF.

Through his research, Dr. Rock noticed a set of five types of social experience that our human brains react to on a visceral level:

  • Status: our relative standing compared to other people
  • Certainty: being able to predict the future
  • Autonomy: freedom to do as we think is best
  • Relatedness: a sense of safety with others (friends vs foes)
  • Fairness: perception of fair exchange between people

These areas are primary rewards and threats that drive our brains, tracing back to the beginning of the human species. We all know that the brain has basic needs like food, water, shelter, and a sense of certainty, but Dr. Rock explains that alongside those there are “social needs,” which “if not met, create a sense of threat that can quickly devolve into conflicts between people.”

This makes sense that as humans our social needs are just as important as our physical needs. Unlike a wolf or a bear or a lion, we obtain most of our resources not from the wild but from other people. This is why, unlike other mammals, so much of our “cortical real estate” is devoted to the social world. Our interactions among each other are just as important as our abilities for seeing, moving, and hearing, and this is why our social brain allows us to understand and connect with others, and to understand and control ourselves. Dr. Rock shares that this is the same reason that newborn babies orient towards a picture of a face more than any other picture from only a few minutes old. We are social creatures by design.

All of this goes to say that social issues matter — deeply — to the brain. You have probably seen Maslow’s hierarchy before, which depicts the prioritization of core needs we have, starting with physical survival as the base/foundation. While social needs have for a long time sat firmly in the middle of Maslow’s hierarchy, Dr. Rock and many others are increasingly showing that the brain interacts with social needs using the same networks as are used for basic survival. He points out that being hungry and being ostracized, for example, activate similar threats and pain responses.

Conscious of the unconscious

Back to the SCARF training, the lesson for me that day at Google, was that we tend to have one area that activates within us more intensely and sensitively than the others. While we all react to each of them, there’s usually one that makes us have outsized reactions.

The key, first and foremost, is to be aware of these triggers: both overall and whichever area(s) are most prominent in each of us. With this awareness, we can begin to anticipate and understand both our own and others’ reactions and priorities (Rock, 2020).

I, for one, am a fairness person. Maybe it’s because I’m the middle of five children or maybe it’s because it’s simply the way I’m wired. But when I think back over the years at what has gotten me most riled, most bothered, most activated, it’s usually issues of fairness. In my roommate example, it was clearly deeply unfair to have someone get the single room for no good reason. Similarly in previous work roles, I would work myself up if I felt like someone was getting to work on another project that I wanted to work on for no good reason.

For my friend from the dorm room example, when I look at her with a SCARF lens she’s clearly a “Relatedness” person; nothing is ever more important to her than being on good terms with people. So as long as I and my other roommate were feeling good about our relationships with her, it wasn’t so important to her how “fair” something was.

SCARF + Family

You’ve probably felt intuitively that your minds don’t work in the same exact way as your parents’, siblings’, children’s, etc do. Hopefully SCARF can be a model to you for how we differ and how you can work better with friends and family alike. .

What does this look like? If we can understand what is meaningful to each member of a family, we can leverage that information to improve the relationships and communication between us.

Firstly, just being able to understand why reactions are happening as they’re happening can be very calming and validating. Part of why we get so upset when we’re upset… is that we’re upset that we’re upset. So by understanding that our reactions and those of others make sense in the context of their particular SCARF trigger areas, we can at least make sense of any big feelings we’re feeling.

Secondly, we can use this knowledge in any of our relationships that need a bit more tending: increase the elements of SCARF in them with particular focus on what you feel are their extra sensitive areas. For example:

  • Status: compliment something that you genuinely admire about them. Maybe they’re really good at explaining complicated things or, starting even smaller, maybe you just like their outfit that day.
  • Certainty: be clear on your expectations about them. If you ask for their help at a child’s birthday party be clear which tasks you want them to help with beforehand (respectfully).
  • Autonomy: give them space to make their own decisions. Let them decide how they’re going to spend the day with your kids if they’ve offered to babysit.
  • Relatedness: connect with them on a human level. Share a story they might not know about you.
  • Fairness: treat them fairly. If you’ve let your sister crash in your apartment, consider letting your brother know that he’s always welcome to as well.

SCARF + Money

It turns out that these SCARF components are also helpful in money-specific matters.

Why do people want money? If you think about others in your family and around you, the answers likely vary. Maybe it’s the security of being able to provide for ourselves and our families that money makes one feel. Maybe people feel like being wealthy bestows upon them higher status. For others, it’s less about exactly how much they have and more about whether they’ve been given what they’re “owed.” For others still it’s about what money enables them to participate in with others: certain clubs or hobbies or school communities.

None of these reasons are right or wrong or more valid than the others — they are what they are. But when we can at least understand the views others may have, it creates some clarity around what may otherwise be some very triggering situations or conversations, whether that’s a parent’s will or seeing a sibling spend in different ways than we do.

Ask yourself

Take a moment to reflect on yourself and your own relationships.

  • Which of the SCARF components is your most sensitive spot?
  • What would you guess are the sensitive SCARF areas for your closest friends and family? Are some more common than others?
  • Can you remember times where you’ve been activated on multiple components at once?

Hopefully this lens give you another way to understand your feelings and your brain, and those of your friends and family too.

And maybe you’ll think twice before telling people to “Treat others the way you want to be treated,” and will instead choose to “Treat others the way they want to be treated.”




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