Why Do Some Stories of Moral Exemplars Increase Prosocial Behavior?

Project Awarded: $28,402.50

We aim to study when and why people are motivated to emulate moral saints, heroes, and other exemplars. Stories about exemplars are often used as sources for moral education, but which stories are most effective at promoting prosocial behavior among students and why?

Previous studies do suggest that the presentation of moral exemplars can induce virtuous behavior via emulation (Bandura, 1969; Kristjánsson, 2006; Sanderse, 2012). Several psychological mechanisms explain why the presentation of moral stories might work—e.g. vicarious social learning (Bandura, 1969; Henrich 2015), moral elevation (Haidt, 2000), and upward social comparison (Blanton, Buunk, Gibbons, & Kuyper, 1999). However, as philosophers have noted, unrealistically high moral standards can also be problematic and even backfire (Wolf, 1982; Carbonell 2012; Curzer, 2015). Psychological studies support this worry, as stories tend to induce more negative responses the more students think the exemplar is irrelevant to their own lives and engages in superhuman deeds that are unattainable (Monin, 2007; Monin et al., 2008).

We have previously conducted lab and classroom experiments that examined how to effectively promote prosocial motivation. The studies measured voluntary service engagement among students in Korea after they read stories of moral exemplars while minimizing potential negative outcomes (Han et al. 2017), such as moral envy and resentment, which were reported in previous experiments (Monin, 2007; Monin et al., 2008). Our studies demonstrated that emulation among students is better promoted by attainable and relevant exemplars, such as peers, compared to unattainable and irrelevant exemplars, such as historical figures. These findings extended previous psychological studies, which have suggested that the attainability and relevance of role models significantly increases emulation of exemplary behavior (Cialdini, 1980; Lockwood & Kunda, 1997).

The following questions remain unresolved. First, previous studies have not clearly illuminated the psychological mechanisms that explain why attainability and relevance of moral exemplars significantly influences emulation. Second, our previous intervention experiments used self-report as the way to measure participants’ prosocial behavior, so they might be susceptible to social desirability bias (Ito & Cacioppo, 2007). Third, we have not tested our interventions among English-speaking participants. Finally, the neurocognitive mechanisms underpinning the efficacy of moral exemplar interventions have not been characterized. In order to address these issues, we plan to employ more sophisticated experimental designs and eventually neuroimaging to clearly investigate the motivational impact of moral exemplars.

 

Team members:

 Hyemin Han, PhD. Assistant Professor of Educational Psychology, University of Alabama

Hyemin Han, PhD. Assistant Professor of Educational Psychology, University of Alabama

 Josh May, PhD. Assistant Professor of Philosophy, University of Alabama at Birmingham

Josh May, PhD. Assistant Professor of Philosophy, University of Alabama at Birmingham

 Clifford Workman, PhD. Post-doctoral fellow in social neuroscience, University of Chicago

Clifford Workman, PhD. Post-doctoral fellow in social neuroscience, University of Chicago