Study: Acts of Uncommon Goodness Elevate Morality in Others

A study published in the latest issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that exposure to stories of acts of uncommon  moral goodness elevates one’s sense of morality.

This finding is supported by four separate studies that tested different exposure scenarios. In each study the researchers the primary focus was on whether or not people with high “moral identity” (“the degree to which a person’s moral character is experienced as a central part of his or her overall self-concept”) are more susceptible to experiencing “moral elevation.”

The study defines moral elevation as an experience that consists of “distinctive feeling of warmth and expansion that is accompanied by admiration, affection, and even love for the person (or people) whose exemplary behavior is being observed. Moral elevation has been likened to the aesthetic experience felt when one beholds a beautiful object or scene. But unlike purely aesthetic experiences, moral elevation can sometimes lead to behavioral changes, eliciting action tendencies associated with the desire to draw closer to other people and to show greater social responsiveness to the needs and interests of others.” So, moral elevation not only involves an emotional response, but is also often accompanied by prosocial behaviour; this suggests that those who experience moral elevation would in turn behave in a morally positive manner.

The first of the four studies had participants read about two different news stories – one that described an instance of uncommon moral goodness and one that was simply a story of positive feelings.The study explains:

“In the uncommon goodness (UG) story condition, participants read about how an Amish community responded with extraordinary grace and forgiveness after Charles Roberts opened fire in an Amish schoolhouse, killing five girls and injuring another five before killing himself. The story described how hours after their children were killed, several Amish went to see Roberts’s widow to offer forgiveness and express sympathy and later offered financial assistance to her and her children. In the positive emotion (PE) condition, the news story described the reactions of a couple to viewing a sunset over the ocean that was “absolutely incredible.” To ensure that the story seemed newsworthy, the couple was quoted as saying, ‘I’ve just never seen anything like that . . . witnessing that kind of thing has the effect of changing people’s lives forever.’”

The second study required participants to recall a story or experience of uncommon moral goodness. The fourth study had participants watch two Sarah McLachlan music videos: “In the experimental group (uncommon goodness condition),  participants watched World on Fire. The video describes how all but $15 of the $150,000 budget for the video was donated to various charitable causes around the world. The video then chronicles how the money benefited the impoverished communities that received the money versus how it could have been spent creating a regular music video. In the control condition, participants watched. This video depicts McLachlan singing to the camera with various city scenes in the background.”

These three of the four studies were designed to measure the way in which exposure to instances of uncommon goodness caused moral elevation in people with high moral identity. Each study independently supported the researcher’s hypothesis that moral elevation did in fact occur in the expected group of people.

The third was a two part experiment in which participants were first “primed” with an exercise that either presented them with positive/moral words or neutral words. Following this, participants played a “dictator” game which involved allocating funds to other players. No difference in allocation was found in the dictator game between participants who were primed with positive/moral words or neutral words, which proved that it is the exposure to morally elevating events that caused changes in one’s prosocial behaviour.

Ultimately, these studies find that uncommon goodness begets goodness in others. So, knowing that the acts of exceptional love and kindness that we perform will likely inspire a reaction of kindness in others should give us all the more reason to exercise goodness in our lives. If just a few more people doing this, then by the logic of this study, the world would be a better place.