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2 Sources of Moral Behavior: Who You Are and How You Feel

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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AW –

You describe a tension that a lot of scientists (myself included) wonder about, but few have addressed head on.  The implications here are huge: in encouraging moral behavior, should we encourage people to think about the moral acts in which they’ve already engaged, or nudge them away from this type of humble-bragging?  I think you (and Gneezy and Conway and Cornelissen) are absolutely on the right track in answering that (as with so many other psychological phenomena) it depends.  Critically, we need to identify factors that tip people between consistency—doubling down on an initial moral act and licensing—feeling that you’ve done your good deed for the day and giving up.  I also think you’re right that one critical factor here is the amount that a prosocial act “gets into” your identity, becoming something part of who you are.  This reminds me of some great work done by Christopher Bryan and some of my colleagues, in which asking people to consider past voting as part of their identity (“I am a voter”) instead of simply an action they performed (“I tend to vote”) led to more voting behavior down the road.  In other words, it’s easy to fulfill one’s quota on actions, but once those actions become a long-standing, abstract, and important feature of your self, those quotas disappear.

Another tension that’s been on my mind lately is that between negative and positive motivators of prosocial behavior.  Whenever I see ads for Save the Children, St. Jude’s Hospital, and so forth, I’m always struck by the appeal to one or both of a pair of approaches: a harrowing depiction of lives poorer or sicker than our own as pure, uncut suffering, or an uplifting sense that you—yes, you—can make that suffering go away.  Both messages are problematic: they present simplified accounts of others’ lives, which can cause people to feel LESS similar to the targets of their helping, and even lead them to subtly dehumanize others.  We both have gripes with this, for instance with the KONY campaign, but I’ll leave you to open that can if you like.  Another issue with using negative emotion to promote good deeds is that it can encourage people to perform a moral act as a form of avoidance: an attempt to tamp down negative feelings.  Daryl Cameron and Keith Payne recently demonstrated that negative emotion can exacerbate the identifiable victim effect: under which people help one individual in need but not many.  This is because people anticipate feeling somewhat bad when faced with one person’s suffering, but feeling extremely bad when faced with the suffering of many.  In order to escape this pain, they, in essence, “regulate away” their empathy: a topic to which I hope we can return later.

For now, my question is: do positive or negative messages serve as stronger catalysts to donation?  And does one type of message lead to more immediate donation—followed by subsequent licensing—whereas the other leads to more sustained adoption of a “donating identity?”  I have some thoughts, but let’s hear yours first.




Jamil Zaki About the Author: Jamil Zaki is an assistant professor of psychology at Stanford University, studying the cognitive and neural bases of social cognition and behavior. Follow on Twitter @jazzmule.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. KatrinaFirlik 8:50 am 03/27/2013

    Encouraging pity is not the best way to inspire altruism, I agree. It tends to separate “us” from “them.”

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  2. 2. rshoff 7:40 pm 03/27/2013

    Moral acts mean nothing. Moral acts come from a state of morality at a core value level. That is what should be encouraged. Consistency in core values. The acts are simply behaviors that result from that core.

    Pretty flowers and leaves come from a healthy plant. The object is to nurture the plant, the flowers and leaves are just evidence of that healthy state.

    Also, we should be acting based on those core values and not reactions to messages. Reaction to positive and/or negative messages
    -regardless of the charity that may result- misses the point. We should be encouraged to act from a core value system that is not reliant upon messaging be it positive or negative. We must make sure that we are able to help build core values within the community.

    Hollywood and video games do not help in this arena.

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  3. 3. OlgatheGreat 11:05 pm 03/27/2013

    The question of positive versus negative messages should take into account avoidance– negative feelings may be better at inspiring action, but they may also inspire behavior that bypasses the messenger.

    With regard to actiin versus identity, it seems like something that might be a stand in for socisl monitoring. The identity track may remind us that we are being watched for clues to our personality. The humble bragging may happen because we think others won’t judge us based on one incidence. Perhaps, the key is to let someone know that they have that identity and are in danger of losing it!

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  4. 4. PhyreSpirit 8:06 pm 03/28/2015

    (Better late than never!)

    “do positive or negative messages serve as stronger catalysts to donation?”

    I would assume, going back to what I remember of Psych 101, “negative messages” would serve as stronger catalysts in the short term, so basically, overall.

    “Positive messages” however, and/or positive returns, would serve as stronger catalysts in the long term. Those positive messages are what leads to “donating identity”, and those messages must be phrased properly, as noted regarding the voter. If not properly worded and thought of by the subject, donation never becomes an identity but instead remains a casual “whenever” thing.

    “And does one type of message lead to more immediate donation—followed by subsequent licensing—whereas the other leads to more sustained adoption of a ‘donating identity?’”

    It only makes sense that the negative, dehumanizing, 2 am infomercials would lead to an immediate, one time donation, followed by licensing such as; “I did my part to save the children”.

    On the other hand, something like volunteer umpiring for little league may turn into a “second job” for some people as a form of donating their time in a positive way for youth athletics – thus becoming a “donating identity”. The person simply has to have adopted that volunteer work as part of their identity; “I am a volunteer umpire”, rather than see it as an action they perform; “I volunteer as an umpire”.

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  5. 5. PhyreSpirit 8:36 pm 03/28/2015

    While I personally respond better to positive reinforcement, a thought occurred to me after my post… Depending on how you look at it, and how many 2 am infomercials to “save the children” a person may watch, what their personality is like, and so forth, some people may respond automatically to negative reinforcement. Also, those lines between “punishment” and “negative reinforcement” can be such a blur… Which is it, really? Is that person morally & monetarily “punishing” themselves for not feeling they have donated enough time or money to other charities when those commercials air? I change the channel knowing I do my part and have no reason to feel guilt, (nor do I know exactly where that money really goes). Could it be that it is basic Skinner punishment or negative reinforcement that makes some people donate to these 2 am infomercials? If so, it would be very easy to get those people on the phone, give them that “donation identity”, and then, they may just be trapped, like rats in a Skinner box… Scary thought.

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