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Moral elevation

Author: Dr Simon Moss


Moral elevation is a specific emotion or state that individuals sometimes experience after they witness or hear about a virtuous act-an act in which someone showed unexpected compassion, forgiveness, understanding, and altruism. After individuals experience this state, they become more altruistic and helpful.

Example of moral elevation

To illustrate, Schnall, Roper, and Fessier (2010) compared feelings of moral elevation to feelings of amusement on cooperative behavior. Some participants watched an uplifting clip from the Oprah Winfrey show in which renowned musicians thanked previous mentors. Other participants watched an amusing clip from Faulty Towers. Finally, in the control condition, participants watched a nature documentary. Next, all participants specified the extent to which they feel uplifted, optimistic about humanity, warm in the chest, amused, happy, and so forth. Afterwards, participants were asked whether or not they would be prepared to offer help on another study.

Moral elevation was more likely than both of the other conditions to encourage helpful behavior: participants who watched the Oprah Winfrey clip spent more time on the optional study (Schnall, Roper, & Fessier, 2010).

Furthermore, in response to the Oprah Winfrey clip, compared to the other clips, participants reported they felt more uplifted, optimistic about humanity, and warm in the chest. They were also more likely to feel the desire to help other people and become a better person.

The state of moral elevation is experienced subjectively as a sense of warmth (Haidt, 2000). That is, individuals feel uplifted (Haidt, Algoe, Meijer, Tam, & Chandler, 2000).

Phenomenology of moral elevation

Usually, these feelings correspond to a sense of warmth or tingling is felt in the chest and other physical sensations. Participants in a study conducted by Freeman, Aquino, and McFerran (2009), after reading about individuals who showed compassion and forgiveness towards the wife of someone who had perpetrated a crime against them, were more likely to report chills and tingles, a lump in their throat, tears in their eyes, warmth in their chest, blushing, an increased heart rate, or a feeling of lightness.

Consequences of moral elevation

Immediate consequences

The state of moral elevation seems to have evolved to promote behaviors that are characterized by altruism and affiliation towards other individuals (Haidt, 2000). Individuals also experience immense appreciation, admiration, and sometimes even love towards the person who enacted this virtuous act (Haidt, 2000).

In addition, individuals experience the desire to become a better-that is, more moral, upright, and helpful-person. In a study conducted by Freeman, Aquino, and McFerran (2009), after individuals read a story about individuals who showed compassion and forgiveness towards the wife of someone who had perpetrated a crime against them, individuals were more likely to endorse items like "I wish I were a better person" and "I want to be more like the people in the story".

As a consequence, moral elevation promotes altruism. Compared to individuals who watched a comedic video, individuals who watched a documentary about Mother Teresa were more inclined to feel inspired to volunteer to assist charities in the future, as cited by Haidt (2000).

Indeed, these desires even overcome many of the obstacles that usually impede donations. Individuals who experience a social dominance orientation-and, in particular, believe that superior groups should be permitted to dominate-often refrain from donations to deprived communities. Conceivably, they convince themselves that such deprivation is consistent with the natural order, perhaps to reinforce the extant inequalities. Nevertheless, after exposure to a video about individuals who forgave someone who had hurt them, this association between social dominance orientation and abstention from donations diminished (Freeman, Aquino, & McFerran, 2009).

Furthermore, some individuals experience a form of openness, characterized by an urge to be playful, which Fredrickson (2001) associates with joy. For example, as described by Haidt (2000), the passenger who watched a man help an elderly woman shovel snow felt like singing, running, skipping, laughing, and hugging as well as complimenting other individuals, playing in the snow, and engaging in creative endeavors.

Future consequences

States of moral elevation also generate more enduring changes as well (Haidt, 2000). One person, in the study cited by Haidt (2000), chose his career path in medicine after observing the support that his family received when his grandfather was dying. The feelings he experienced that day sometimes emerged seven years later.

Cox (2010) showed that moral elevation can promote charitable, helpful behavior up to three months later. Specifically, college studies participated in a service trip during spring break, to elicit moral elevation. The trip was in Nicaragua, volunteering with the Nicaraguan Orphan Fund. They later answered questions that assess moral elevation, such as "I was touched by how the community at La Chureca (the city dump) looked out for each other".

If participants experienced moral elevation during this service trip, they were more likely to volunteer in this program one week and three months later--even after controlling empathy, agreeableness, extraversion, and openness to experience (see five factor model of personality). However, they not more likely to volunteer in unrelated programs.

Conceivably, when the individuals subsequently reflected upon this previous trip, memories of moral elevation were evoked. These feelings then translated to an urge to volunteer again. In contrast, individuals have not formed associations between other programs and moral elevation. Exposure to other programs, therefore, might not elicit these feelings of moral elevation or encourage volunteering.

Antecedents to moral elevation

The state of moral elevation arises whenever individuals witness, or hear about, acts that epitomize moral virtue (Haidt, 2000)--acts that represent unexpected kindness, compassion, understanding, and forgiveness (Haidt, Algoe, Meijer, Tam, & Chandler, 2000).

In one study, cited by Haidt (2000), participants were asked to write in detail about occasions in which they observed manifestations of the moral virtues of humans. Participants often described instances in which someone assisted a person who was deprived, ill, or distressed. One of these stories, for example, was about a man driving with three other individuals in a car. They drove past an elderly woman, shoveling snow in her driveway. One of the men then left the car, walked to the woman, and then began to help. After witnessing this event, another person in the car experienced a profound desire to help other individuals.

Freeman, Aquino, and McFerran (2009) presented several videos or articles that seemed to promote a state of moral elevation. All of these videos or articles described individuals who had been treated unjustly. In each instance, the individuals show compassion and forgiveness to the perpetrator.

Physiological underpinnings

Indirect evidence indicates that a state of moral elevation might release oxytocin-which is a hormone that might underpin affiliation and does stimulate lactation. Oxytocin in the blood stream is both a determinant of trust (Kosfeld, Heinrichs, Zak, Fischbacher, & Fehr, 2005) as well as a manifestation or consequence of trust (Zak, Kurzban, & Matzner, 2005). These feelings of trust seem to coincide with the subjective experiences that follow exposure to virtuous acts.

Furthermore, oxytocin is synthesized in the hypothalamus, especially under stressful conditions (Nishioka, Anselmo-Franci, Li, Callahan, & Morris, 1998), but is also synthesized in various organs in the chest, such as the heart and thymus (Carter, 2003), which ultimately modulates the parasympathetic nervous system. Such activity of oxytocin might also correspond to some of the physical sensations that correspond to moral elevation.

Consistent with this premise, exposure to a video that epitomized virtuous acts increased lactation in breastfeeding women (Silvers & Haidt, 2008). This finding indicates that moral elevation might elevate levels of oxytocin in the bloodstream, which in turn is related to lactation.

Function of moral elevation

The state of moral elevation appears to be an emotion that represents the opposite of social disgust (Haidt, 2000). That is, according to Haidt and colleagues (e.g., Haidt, McCauley, & Rozin, 1994;; Haidt, Rozin, McCauley, & Imada, 1997;; Rozin, Haidt, & McCauley, 1993), social disgust represents the emotional reaction that individuals feel when someone seems to decline some abstract, vertical dimension of morality. In particular, this perspective presupposes that humans order their social environment from moral perfection, at the top, to moral depravity, at the bottom. Social disgust is experienced when individuals witness another person shifting down this dimension of moral virtue, by exhibiting immoral behavior-somewhat akin to the disgust they feel when they are exposed to contaminating objects, such as cockroaches.

Social disgust is presumably an adaptive emotion. This feeling might mobilize the inclination in individuals to protect or distance themselves from any associations with such depravity or to enact behaviors that deter similar instances of immorality in the future. These responses increase the likelihood of a cooperative, and thus thriving, community in the future.

From this perspective, moral elevation might reflect the converse of this shift. That is, individuals experience a state of moral elevation when they are exposed to someone who ascends this dimension of morality. Such feelings might mobilize tendencies in individuals to associate with such virtue or to encourage similar behaviors in the future.

Moral elevation and other theories

Moral elevation might correspond to the activation of extension memory, as characterized by Kuhl (2000). Extension memory is a vast network of self representations. When negative affect dissipates, extension memory is activated, and individuals become more inclined to align with their core values and to think intuitively (e.g., (Baumann & Kuhl, 2005). Similarly, moral elevation often follows exposure to anecdotes in which an aversive act, such as deprivation or immorality, is redressed through compassion and altruism-representing a sudden decline in negative affect.

Furthermore, extension memory is represented primarily in the right hemisphere (e.g, Baumann, Kuhl, & Kazen, 2005)-the hemisphere that underpins the need for affiliation rather than power (Kuhl & Kazen, 2008). Likewise, moral elevation also corresponds to a need for affiliation.

Related concepts

Determinants of compassion

When an economic mindset is primed--that is, while individuals strive to increase profit, efficiency, and their business--compassion tends to decline (Molinsky, Grant, & Margolis,2012). Specifically, an emphasis on economics highlights the importance of self-interest over communal behavior. Indeed, some economic theories even endorse self-interest and tough decisions rather than sympathy or cooperation. Proponents of these theories feel that sympathy and understanding are unprofessional. Consequently, when an economic mindset is primed, people are not as compassionate.

To illustrate, in one study, conducted by Molinsky, Grant, and Margolis (2012), participants wrote stories that revolved around economic matters, such as efficiency and profit, or did not revolve around economic matters. Next, they were instructed to write a letter to students who had been promised a scholarship but could no longer receive this reward because of financial turmoil in the university. If participants had been exposed to economic words, their letters were rated as less caring and compassionate by independent judges. These participants also conceded they did not feel as sympathetic as did other individuals. They were also more inclined to believe that such compassion would be unprofessional. A subsequent study showed that exposure to economic concepts also decreased the time that people dedicated to comforting someone who had just received unfavorable information.

The implication of these findings is that economic and financial imperatives can diminish the compassion that managers demonstrate. As compassion dissipates, employees are more likely to engage in destructive acts, such as theft or litigation, in response to upsetting events. Consequently, an emphasis on economic and financial imperatives can actually be costly to organizations.


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