Cheryl Steed: Can Altruism Be Learned? At the prison where Cheryl Steed works, certain inmates are chosen to be caregivers for elderly inmates. The program has made her wonder — can altruism be learned?

Cheryl Steed: Can Altruism Be Learned?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz, and on the show today Ideas About Altruism and whether certain people are just more altruistic by nature or whether altruism can be learned. So, Cheryl, can you introduce yourself please?

CHERYL STEED: My name is Dr. Cheryl Steed. I am a senior psychologist specialist at the California Men's Colony.

RAZ: And describe the California Men's Colony. What is it?

STEED: It's a medium-security prison for men, and we have inmates who have committed every single crime that you can think of.

RAZ: And prison isn't really a place where you might expect to find a whole lot of altruism. And before Cheryl started working there, she pretty much thought the same thing. Cheryl picks up the story from the TED stage.


STEED: I expected to see a facility full of muscular, tattooed, intimidating young men, but I quickly realized 20 percent of California's male inmate population is over the age of 50. Many inmates are in their 60s, 70s and even 80s. Eventually, many of these aging inmates will be diagnosed with dementia. Take a moment, and imagine what this would be like for someone with dementia to live in such an environment and not remember how you got there or why - when you can go home or even if you can go home.

Keeping elderly inmates, especially those with dementia, safe and healthy is an enormous task, but at the Men's Colony, someone did tackle this challenge about 20 years ago. Katheryne Evans was a visionary recreational therapist. She created the Gold Coat program. They assign high-functioning general population inmates to serve as assistant caregivers to some of the prison's most vulnerable populations. They're called gold coats because the inmates wear gold-colored jackets over their blue prison uniforms.

RAZ: Today, 20 years later, the Gold Coat program is under Cheryl's direction, and she says the day-to-day job of a gold coat in prison is a lot like the job of a caregiver anywhere else.

STEED: They get up every single morning nice and early, go and assist the inmates who need the help with getting up, getting dressed. They escort them to the dining hall and sit at the tables with them to help them, you know, open the milk carton and encourage them to eat.

And throughout the day, they escort them to their various appointments that they have - medical appointments, take them to the library, help them, you know, write a letter to family or just walk laps with them. You know, if somebody has an accident because they're incontinent, they'll help them get back to their room and get changed and cleaned up, that kind of thing. They assist them and coach them and guide them and act as a presence with them throughout the entire process.

RAZ: And the gold coats - why are they in prison?

STEED: All of the ones that I work with are incarcerated for murder.


STEED: Many of us as outside observers would have a hard time reconciling these men's two identities, someone who is capable of committing a horrific crime against another human being and somebody who helps gently guide an elderly man through the process of showering, dressing and eating. Being a gold coat, as with any caregiver, requires incredible patience, flexibility, frustration tolerance.

For these men, these attributes were not part of their skill set at the time they committed their crime. But the benefits of the Gold Coat program don't stop with the inmates who receive the assistance. The program has a significant positive impact on the gold coats themselves. The experience can be incredibly transformative.

RAZ: It sounds like they've become more altruistic by, you know, by helping other people who are vulnerable.

STEED: Absolutely. They talk about, you know, developing patience and tolerance and empathy. You know, they talk about how in their younger days, they would have seen somebody who is mentally ill or demented, and they would not have taken the time to understand that or figure out if they needed to help. They would have just - that guy's crazy kind of thing. They've learned why that person really needs help as opposed to somebody turning away from them.

RAZ: I mean, these are prisoners who committed murder when they were younger, and they are now in a position where they are showing incredible empathy and kindness.

STEED: And patience, yeah.

RAZ: What motivates them? What - when you ask them, why do you do this, what do they tell you?

STEED: You know, the overarching reason that I hear from the inmates is they want to give back for their crime. They do get paid a very small amount of money for their scheduled hours which is just, you know, a Monday through Friday regular work day kind of hours. But I don't think they see it that way. You know, they all just say I need to make up - or, you know, give back to society for what I did, and this is one way that I know how to do that.

RAZ: You know, I guess somebody hearing this could say, well, I'm not really sure this is a selfless act because they have special privileges. And these Gold Coats are being paid. And maybe they'll - they will get, you know, some benefit when they're up for parole. But I wonder whether over time what they do does become an act of selflessness.

STEED: I think it really does. And I think that's demonstrated in their willingness to volunteer outside of their regular work hours. And while they do get paid, it's a very small amount of money. They get paid 24 cents an hour, which comes out to $36 a month. And they're - it is by far not the highest paying job in the prison. And they work much harder for a lot less money than a lot of inmates do.

Some other inmates sometimes give them a hard time and say, oh, you're just doing that so that the parole board will view you favorably. But it's really not - that does not necessarily make any difference. But just the fact that they say, OK, I'm still here on the weekends, on the holidays, on the evenings, in the middle of the night. You know, that, to me, speaks volumes about that sort of selflessness and that altruistic aspect of the work that they do because nobody says that they have to do that. They just do it.


STEED: And working with the Gold Coats has changed me as well. Every week, I meet with incarcerated men who are finding something new in themselves, something that eludes easy categories and transcends their old identities. How do you explain the fact that a man who once took a life is now a caregiver, that someone who inflicted great pain is now dedicated to relieving pain?

Which version of this person is the truth? Caregiving is exhausting, often thankless work. Yet every morning, these men get up to assist the inmates with dementia. Seeing the changes in them changes how I view all of us as human beings.


RAZ: I think a lot of people think of altruism as something innate, right? But, I mean, but this seems to suggest that you can teach it, that you can actually teach a grown man or woman to behave in this way, you know, somebody who maybe wouldn't be altruistic otherwise.

STEED: Right. Yeah. I think, you know, I think they must just have some kernel of something there that maybe has just never been nurtured, that we nurture it. And it's through working with the Gold Coats that I've realized whoa, you know, we can take somebody who was, you know, what people would call a hardened criminal or, you know, a murderer or something like that and bring this whole different aspect of themselves to light.

They talk about, you know, developing empathy and realizing, oh, you know, my behavior has an impact on somebody else. It's not just all about me. It's about somebody else and somebody else's needs before mine. It certainly challenged my assumption when I first walked in the door of, you know, gosh, these are just all criminals. They're not, they're human beings.

RAZ: Yeah.

STEED: And it's really important to remember that

RAZ: Cheryl Steed. She's senior psychologist at the California Men's Colony in Central California. You can see that full talk at


Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.