Good News Can Inspire Good Behavior
Media reports about uncommon acts of goodness can make good people even better, says marketing professor Brent McFerran.
ANN ARBOR, Mich.—People with a strong moral identity are measurably inspired to do good after being exposed to media stories about uncommon acts of human goodness, according to new research from the Ross School.
A recent study by Brent McFerran, assistant professor of marketing at Ross, and colleague Karl Aquino, a professor at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia, shows that exposure to media accounts of extraordinary virtue can spur "moral elevation"—thoughts and emotions about being a better person.
People who experience this moral elevation, they say, are more readily disposed to take positive moral action, including giving to charity.
"Showing acts of goodness may serve to broaden one's donor base and stand out in the charity marketplace," McFerran says. "Rather than showing wreckage from the tsunami (in Japan), for example, (let's) talk about people who have done extraordinary things to help. These stories might foster ordinary people to behave in extraordinary ways."
Appearing in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the paper consists of four separate studies conducted by McFerran and Aquino. In one, they carried out an experiment with 63 subjects to determine if people influenced to identify in terms of their morality were more likely to experience moral elevation after reading a news item recounting a story of uncommon goodness.
The researchers wanted to determine if these moral self-identifiers were more likely to display pro-social behavior after reading a news story recounting an act uncommon goodness versus a story focused merely on positive human interaction.
In the first part of the experiment, one random group of subjects was primed to see themselves in terms of their moral identity by completing a word search including morally connotative terms, such as compassionate, honest, and kind. A second group completed a word search comprised of morally neutral terms.
The subjects were then randomly assigned to read one of two news stories. Both of the stories were about positive human interactions, but only one recounted an act of uncommon goodness. It described a 2006 shooting at an Amish schoolhouse in which parents offered forgiveness and financial assistance to the widow of the man who shot their children within days of the incident. The second story recounted a couple's experience of seeing a beautiful sunset.
Subjects then completed questionnaires asking them to divide $10 between themselves and an unknown partner in another room. Participants who read the Amish story and who were influenced to think about themselves in terms of their moral identity gave 32 percent more money, on average, to their partners than the subjects who were not influenced to think in terms of their moral identity.
Further, it was found that reading stories of uncommon moral goodness had a significant positive effect on the way moral self-identifiers shared funds. These subjects shared an average of 24 percent more after reading the story of uncommon goodness over the amount they were willing to give after reading the merely positive story.
Based on the research, McFerran and Aquino say the media could play a strategic role in helping the fundraising efforts for natural disasters like the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
"Focusing on individual examples of extraordinary goodness within the crisis may be a more effective and subtle way to encourage people to donate than inundating them with stories and pictures of need and desperation," Aquino says. "If more attention was devoted to recounting stories of uncommon acts of human virtue, the media could have a quantifiable positive effect on the moral behavior of a significant group of people."
Written by Andrew Riley, Sauder School of Business
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