Brent McFerran

Brent McFerran Ph.D.

I'll Have What She's Having

Media Stories of Goodness Inspire Generosity

Does good news make for good people?

Posted Apr 12, 2011

In a series of studies published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Karl Aquino, Marjorie Laven, and I we show that people exposed to acts of uncommon goodness or virtue were significantly more likely to behave in prosocial ways.

Across four studies using more than 1,000 participants, we show a direct link between a person's exposure to media accounts of extraordinary virtue and their desire to behave in ways that benefit humanity. Further, we show that this link is stronger in people for whom morality is important to their sense of self. In our studies, we showed that accounts of uncommon goodness (versus other positive stories) led to more generous behavior in a dictator game (where participants choose how much of a $20 prize they keep for themselves and how much to allocate to an anonymous other person). In another study, we found a 32 percent increase in donations to a charity. What was powerful about that study is that this charity helped reintegrate incarcerated offenders back into the community--not exactly a group likely to generate much sympathy.

What caused people to open their wallets? We show that acts of uncommon goodness unlock moral elevation and a suite of responses: emotional, cognitive, even physical, that directly affect prosocial behavior. Not any act of goodness causes elevation, however. We show that the act must be uncommonly good. We're not talking about giving an elderly person a seat on the bus, for example. In two of our studies, participants were presented with the (true) story of the Pennsylvania Amish School Shooting, where Charles Roberts shot ten children, killing five, before turning the gun on himself. In the aftermath, several Amish families grieved with the killer's widow, parents, and in-laws. The community even gave money to Roberts' family. This act is undoubtedly extraordinary, but not an isolated example. In a separate study, people were asked to recall an act of uncommon goodness that they had personally witnessed. The effects still held in this case.

Of course, the media can help spread accounts of goodness, but they have a tendency to publicize, even celebrate bad behavior, such as Charlie Sheen's recent exploits. Our findings suggest that the media could have a profound positive effect on how people behave--if more good news actually made the news.

This has implications for development and fundraising efforts. While many organizations rely on displaying vivid images of need, other research shows that many potential donors feel compassion fatigue--basically a decreased sensitivity that results from being inundated with stories of desperation. The result: We turn the channel when we see the World Vision ad coming on. Seeing starving children is hard, and often unpleasant, so we avoid situations entirely where we might be asked to give. While we know that guilt can motivate prosocial action in some instances, it has the side effect of resulting in avoidance behavior in others. We show that acts of goodness can lead to donations, and are unlikely to lead to compassion fatigue.

This paper is available on my profile page.

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