Pro-Social Behaviour: Che Guevara

Raul Castro, left, with has his arm around sec...

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Che Guevara and Pro-Social Behaviour

This essay deals with Che Guevara, the revolutionist who’s actions helped lead to the downfall of a militant regime, and led to his image being printed thousands of t-shirts, key-rings, and banners throughout the western world. Many people wear his image or recognise his features yet fewer still know why this figure in history has been kept alive in mainstream society, or what he had achieved during his lifetime. A prominent figure and an inspiring man, Che Guevara is well-known even today, decades after his death. This essay examines the use of pro-social behaviour, and how Che Guevara came from being an Argentinian medical student to becoming a world-renowned freedom fighter and liberator of the Cuban people.

Ernesto “Che” Guevara was an inspiring, intelligent man who performed many roles, such as a politician, an author, a physician, a traveller, a military theorist, but he is most famous for his role as a revolutionist, his involvement in the Cuban Revolution, and the duties and roles he performed during that time. The Cuban Revolution was armed uprising, a revolution that came from the people, not a government army. It was a movement that emerged not only due to Batista’s regime in Cuba, but from Latin America’s overall troubles and inequalities as well, inequalities and suffering that had been prevalent for many years. As Thomas C. Wright (2001) states:

“The Cuban Revolution owed its vast influence in Latin America to the fact that-most      evidently in its early years- it embodied the aspirations and captured the imagination of     Latin America’s masses as no other political movement had ever done” (pg xi).

The Revolution was inspired by the masses of people in Latin America, it was not inspired by personal or political gain, or lust for power. For Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and all the revolutionists who joined the Revolution, the movement was not for the benefit of the few, but of the many- it was a struggle for all the people across Latin America, an altruistic movement to liberate the people and inspire future generations, showing that the power truly does lie in the people. Those involved in the Cuban Revolution were not all trained soldiers, nor did they possess military-grade equipment and supplies. However, it was through the leadership and communicative qualities of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara that the inspired people were led to victory, defeating the militant regime of Fulgencio Batista, and his army which greatly outnumbered the revolutionists in terms of equipment, training, and weapons.

Che Guevara, through his courage, determination and leadership qualities, was promoted to second-in-command of the 26th July Movement, the movement which led the Cuban Revolution to victory and toppled the dictatorship of Batista in 1959. Che Guevara helped lead the guerrilla soldiers to victory, emphatically taking to heart the Cuban people’s suffering under the regime, and inspiring the masses to rise up and liberate themselves. Despite sympathising with the masses of Cuba and greater Latin America, Che Guevara was not born in Cuba. He was originally a medical student in southern Latin America. Somehow this Argentinian student had been moved to empathise with the sufferings of the Latin American people, enough to join a movement not of his own, to fight for the freedom of people not his own. So what led Ernesto Guevara to Cuban soil in 1956, and what led a young man to sympathise so strongly with the troubles and suffering of another nation that he joins a revolutionary movement to topple a regime not of his own people?

Ernesto “Che” Guevara was originally born in Argentina. The eldest son of a middle-class family, he was well-read by adolescence and was interested in politics and philosophy, as well as psychology and Latin American writers. An intellectual, Guevara joined the University of Buenos Aires in 1948 to study medicine. Although he eventually finished the course, receiving his medical degree in 1953, he had taken a year out in 1951 to travel Latin America, and it was this year of travelling that began the change that would lead Ernesto Guevara to become the man that would later be named “Che” Guevara. During 1951, Guevara travelled Latin America with a friend on motorbikes, and this middle-class medical student came across sights that were to instil in himself empathy and understanding that would change his path forever. Guevara came across sights of extreme poverty throughout his travels, and low standards of living that he felt were the ramifications of social and economic inequalities- inequalities that arose as a result of capitalism. He saw the distinct differences in standards of living between the poor peasantry of Latin America and the wealthy land-owners, who owned the land the peasantry worked on. As Guevara himself stated:

“Because of the circumstances in which I travelled, first as a student and later as a doctor, I came into close contact with poverty, hunger and disease; with the inability to treat a child because of lack of money” (Obra Revolucionaria, Ano 1960, No. 24)

This stirred something in the young, impressionable medical student, who evidently felt frustrated that the inherent suffering of the Latin American people could not be alleviated, because of the social differences that arose between the wealthy land-owners and the poverty-stricken peasantry who formed the majority. The cause of this inequality was money, the poorer peasants were unable to rise out of their “poverty, hunger and disease” due to the wealthy land-owners perpetuating the rich-poor gap. And, upon viewing this during his travels, Guevara would later remark: “I wanted to help those people.” (Obra Revolucionaria, Ano 1960, No. 24). It can be argued that Ernesto Guevara already had qualities of pro-social behaviour inherent in his personality, prior to his travels through greater Latin America, given his interest in becoming a doctor and studying medicine. It is clear that often doctors exhibit altruistic motivations, interested in the welfare of others and exhibiting pro-social behaviour. Upon encountering such poverty and inequality, as well as disease, malnutrition and suffering children, both the aspiring doctor in Guevara and his inherent nature led him to empathise with the people, and as he later stated, he “wanted to help those people”. Stiff, J.B et al. (1988) writes:

“Empathy has been broadly implicated in processes which lead to helping and other forms of pro social behaviour.” (P198)

Empathy is an important aspect of pro social behaviour, as it leads to understanding and compassion for another’s emotions or suffering, and perspective-taking where the observer can place himself in another’s position. In some cases the observer can even transpose another’s emotions and distress onto their own emotions, leading to an empathic emotional response. It is this that leads to pro social behaviour- the wish to perform altruistic behaviour in order to alleviate another’s suffering or to better their standards of living. Although pro social behaviour can be performed for mutual gain, selfish or egoistic reasons,  or a number of other reasons, it is empathy that leads to true pro social behaviour: the ability to place oneself in another’s position/perspective, or to feel their emotions. This leads to the desire to change things, or to help others even though there may be no perceived benefit to the self. Despite already exhibiting forms of pro-social behaviour in his wish to join the field of medicine, it was his travels through Latin America in 1951 that shaped Ernesto Guevara into the man he was to become, a figurehead for liberation whose pro-social behaviour led him to truly empathise with the suffering not only of poverty-stricken individuals, but of the whole of the Latin American people. He saw the Latin American people as one people, united by common ancestry and blood, not separated by lines on a map. Stiff, J. B. et al. continues:

“Perhaps the aspect of empathy about which there is the greatest consensus is that of perspective taking. This cognitive component of the superordinate empathy construct refers     to the ability of an individual to adopt the viewpoint of another”(P199)

Empathy comes in different forms, with differing definitions and understandings of the word. However, as the study above notes, “perspective taking” is an aspect of empathy with which “there is the greatest consensus”. Ernesto Guevara, though from a middle-class family, empathised with those that he saw who were suffering. Despite not growing up in such conditions of poverty and

disease, he was able to adopt the viewpoint of the people that he encountered in his travels, seeing their frustration at their low standards of living. This perspective taking aspect of empathy led Ernesto Guevara to transcend his perspective as a man from a middle-class background, and to place himself in the perspective of the poverty-stricken people that he encountered on his travels. Although not from as poor background as those he encountered, Ernesto was able to view things from their perspective, understanding their indignation at the injustice they perceived at the gap between the land-owners and the working-classes. Stiff J. B. writes that:

“Given that the observer assumes the role or perspective of the target, either through innate tendency or experimental manipulation, several things may result. One group of theorists argues that the persons who observe the distress of another become emotionally agitated themselves (Gaertner & Dovidio, 1977; Piliavin, Rodin, & Piliavin, 1969). In other words, these theorists contend that perspective taking causes emotional contagion.” (P200)

This argues the case from a group of theorists that perspective taking, placing oneself in the perspective of another, particularly one who is in “distress”, leads to emotional agitation. This affective condition is the result of observing another person’s distress or unhappiness, whether “actual or anticipated”. Rather than simply placing oneself “in another’s shoes”, viewing things from a different perspective, here the observer is directly and emotionally affected by the emotion or position of another. The distress or position of another that is observed through perspective taking leads to a direct emotional response that resonates throughout the observer. As Stiff J. B. et al describes:

“Emotional contagion is an explicitly affective aspect of empathy, which occurs when one person experiences an emotional response parallel to, and as a result of, observing another person’s actual or anticipated display of emotion (Coke et al., 1978; Dabis, 1980, 1983; Deutsch & Madle, 1975; Feshbach, 1975; Stodand, 1969). The “parallel to” portion of the definition suggests that some general correspondence between two persons exists in the substantive nature of an emotion, though perfect correspondence is usually not considered necessary (Hoffman, 1977, 1978)”.  (P199)

Guevara was affected by the sights that he saw during his travels, sights of “poverty, hunger and disease” that led to an empathic response in himself- an emotional response that was “parallel to, and as a result of, observing another person’s” real emotions and distress, and as well as “anticipated” emotions and distress that Guevara perceived as a result of perspective taking. This real emotional response to perceived distress or emotions led Guevara to empathise with the people he encountered, and indeed he transposed this emotional contagion to the whole people of Latin America, leading Che Guevara to state later in life: “If you tremble with indignation at every injustice then you are a comrade of mine.” (The Quotable Rebel: Political Quotations for Dangerous Times (2005) by Teishan Latner, p. 112). This direct quote clearly shows how Guevara symbolically states how if you “tremble with indignation” at real or perceived injustice, than you are a comrade of his. It can be noted that this injustice is not limited to injustice perceived towards one’s self or own country, but is true for injustice worldwide. Che Guevara was not simply interested in liberating his own country of Argentina, or stopping the liberation of the people after the Cuban Revolution. He went on to attempt to bring the revolution abroad, to other Latin American countries and indeed countries worldwide, to liberate the people of the world against the injustice that he perceived, stemming mainly from capitalism and those in control of the wealth, who perpetuated the rich-poor gap and allowed “poverty, hunger and disease” for the peasantry. This fits with the idea of emotional contagion, where an emotional response is created parallel to another’s emotion, suffering and distress. For Guevara on his travels, the people of Latin America inspired in him a real emotional response that was another aspect of empathy, leading him to pro-social behaviour. This pro-social behaviour would lead Ernesto Guevara to attempt to help others, to better their standards of life, to liberate themselves from tyranny and control, to redistribute property and wealth, to educate the masses, and to inspire future generations to follow in his footsteps. As Stiff J. B et al explains:

“Emotional contagion motivates persons to reduce the source of unpleasantness to the other because of its indirect effects on themselves.” (P200)

The emotional response that Guevara felt led him to wish to eradicate the source of this unpleasant emotion: the inequalities and suffering perceived by the working-classes, and the gap between the wealthy and the poor, a gap that led to hunger and disease, with many children unable to be treated “because of lack of money”. However, it is clear that Ernesto Guevara, a well-read intellectual and medical student, already exhibited some degree of the pro social personality, and the wish to help others. Therefore it can be stated that this wish to “reduce the source of unpleasantness” for another individual, or even the people of another country, was not due to the “indirect effects” of emotional contagion, but due to the genuine altruistic desire to help others, and to better their way of life. Rather than wishing to better the people’s conditions for the sake of removing the negative emotional response that was created, Guevara wanted to help the people for their own sake. As a known reader of Karl Marx, it can be safely assumed that Guevara sympathised with the viewpoint that the people possess the power to liberate themselves, and merely wanted to help this process for the sake of the people rather than selfish reasons or personal gain. As a result of the negative connotations of emotional contagion, Stiff J. B et al (P200) describe how:

“this perspective [emotional contagion] of empathic helping has been labelled egoistic because it assumes the prosocial behaviour comes about solely because of a desire to benefit the self” (P200)

As stated above, it can be safely assumed that Guevara’s pro-social behaviour did not arise out of a desire for personal gain or egoistic intentions, or a desire to benefit himself, but rather arose out of a genuine desire to help others. The perhaps cynical viewpoint that there must be egoistic desires or personal benefits to pro social behaviour is contended by other theorists. For example the perspective offered by Batson and Coke (cited Stiff J. B. et al P200) “argues for the existence of altruistic motivations for helping others.” This is clearly the case for Ernesto Guevara. As an Argentinian medical student on his travels, there was no clear personal gain for empathising with the troubles and inequalities of those he encountered in Latin America. As a medical student, it can be argued that Ernesto Guevara inherently exhibited pro-social behaviour, and the altruistic motivation to help others and to raise their standards of living. Through perspective taking, Ernesto was able to ignore his own middle-class upbringing and view the perspective of the poorer individuals that he met on his travels, and it is through this perspective taking that he was able to exhibit emotional contagion- to experience an emotional response parallel to another’s “actual or anticipated display of emotion”.  He was able to bring up in himself a parallel and sympathetic emotional response, that would lead him to wish to change the conditions for that response, though not out of a selfish or egoistic reason. Stiff J. B et al explains how many researchers view the three aspects of empathy to be “sequentially and causally ordered” (P200). In other words, the three aspects of empathy-  “perspective taking, emotional contagion and empathic concern”- are ordered in level of importance or empathic concern. For example, emotional contagion (experiencing a parallel emotional response to another’s emotions) is perceived as being a higher empathic understanding than perspective taking (‘merely’ adopting the viewpoint of another). Thus the third aspect of empathy is empathic concern which the perspective, arguing for altruistic motivations for pro social behaviour, suggests is caused by perspective taking (P200).

“Empathic concern, a third component [of empathy], also references an affective   component (Davis, 1980, 1983).” (Stiff J. B. et al P200)

Much like emotional contagion, empathic concern is an affective aspect of empathy, leading to an emotional response in the observer parallel to another’s real or perceived emotional state, or actual or perceived inequalities that arise from perspective taking. Theorists differ on individual definition for empathic concern, however they all have the same underlying concepts. Terms of use as cited by Stiff J. B et al. (P199) include: “sympathetic arousal” (Hoffman 1977), “humanistic orientation” (Dillard & Hunter, 1986), “altruistic motivation” (Coke et al. 1978) and “sympathy” (Bennet, 1979).  Stiff J. B. et al describes how “there is a considerable common ground among each [term]”, as evident by the similarity between the definitions of the terms above.

“The two key features upon which all treatments of empathic concern seem to turn are (1) a general concern and regard for the welfare of others and (2) the stipulation that the affect is not parallel to that of the target person” (P199)

It is evident that Ernesto Guevara exhibited “a general concern and regard for the welfare of others”, which is clear from his medical degree,  and his empathic concern at the suffering of the people in Latin America. Despite coming from Argentina, the perspective taking, emotional contagion and empathic concern that he exhibited during his travels led him to join a cause to liberate the people of Cuba- people that were not his own, suffering under a regime that he was free of. However, he identified with the people and exhibited altruistic, pro social behaviour.  A study by Penner and Finkelstein (1998) defined the pro-social personality as:

“an enduring tendency to think about the welfare and the rights of other people, to feel concern and empathy for them, and to act in a way that benefits them”

Guevara’s actions were not out of a sense of egoistic gain, or for personal fame- he had no way of knowing the eventual outcome of the Cuban revolution. He exhibited true pro social behaviour because of his “enduring tendency” throughout all of his travels, the entire Cuban revolution, and even after the revolution, to empathise with the people, and to attempt to better their standards of living and liberate the masses. As Che Guevara stated (1965):

“At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality”.

Although he joined a militant movement Che Guevara was guided by altruistic motivations,  and throughout the Cuban Revolution helped to educate the people of Cuba, establish health clinics, and inspire many.

In conclusion, it is clear that Ernesto “Che” Guevara was an advocate of pro-social behaviour. His empathic responses to the people of Latin America brought him all the way to Cuba, to join a revolutionary movement to liberate the people from a militant regime, while at the same time teaching citizens to read and write during the campaign, and setting up clinics and redistributing property to the population. His goals were altruistic and pro-social, not egoistic and selfish, or for personal benefit. His ultimate goal was to spread the revolution throughout Latin America and perhaps the rest of the world, a goal that he died attempting to achieve but a goal that nonetheless survives even to this day. For Che Guevara was a man who inspired many, even though some may not know why they wear his image on their t-shirts.


Eisenberg, N., Guthrie. K. I., Cumberland, A., Murphy, B. C., Shepard, S. A., Zhou, Q., Carlo, G. 2002. Prosocial Development in Early Adulthood: A Longitudinal Study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol. 82 Issue 6.

Ernesto Che Guevara. “Obra Revolucionaria, Ano 1960, No. 24” (Official English translation). Translated: Beth Kurti

Ernesto Che Guevara, 1965. “From Algiers, for Marcha: The Cuban Revolution Today”. Marcha, 12 March 1965. Montevideo, Uruguay.

Penner, L.A and Finkelstein, M. A., 1998. Dispositional and Structural Determinants of Volunteerism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 74, 525-537.

Stiff, J. B., Dillard, J. P., Somera, Lilnabeth., Hyun Kim, Sleight, Carra., 1988. Empathy, Communication, and Prosocial Behavior. Communication Monographs, Vol. 5 Issue 2, p198.

Teishan Latner, 2005. The Quotable Rebel: Political Quotations for Dangerous Times. Common Courage Press.

Thomas C. Wright, 2001. Latin America in the era of the Cuban Revolution. Greenwood Publishing Group.

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