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University of Michigan

Quality Insider

Media Reports About Uncommon Goodness Can Make Good People Better

Study shows that positive news can spur positive acts

Published: Tuesday, April 5, 2011 - 06:00

(University of Michigan: Ann Arbor, MI) -- People with a strong moral identity are measurably inspired to do good after being exposed to media stories about uncommon acts of human goodness, says a researcher at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business.

A new study by Brent McFerran, assistant professor of marketing at the Ross School, 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,” says McFerran. “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 who were influenced to identify in terms of their own 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 vs. 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 words, such as “compassionate,” “honest,” and “kind.” A second group completed a word search comprised of morally neutral words.

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 within days of the incident offered forgiveness and financial assistance to the widow of the man who shot their children. 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 significantly positive effect on the way moral self-identifiers shared funds. After reading the story of uncommon goodness, these subjects shared an average of 24-percent more than 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,” says Aquino. “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.”

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University of Michigan

The University of Michigan College of Engineering is ranked among the top engineering schools in the country. At $180 million annually, its engineering research budget is one of largest of any public university. Michigan Engineering is home to 11 academic departments and a National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center. The college plays a leading role in the Michigan Memorial Phoenix Energy Institute and hosts the world-class Lurie Nanofabrication Facility.