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Saturday, April 30, 2022

Which moral exemplars inspire prosociality?

Han, H., Workman, C. I., May, J., et al.
(2022, January 16). PsyArXiv


Some stories of moral exemplars motivate us to emulate their admirable attitudes and behaviors, but why do some exemplars motivate us more than others? We systematically studied how motivation to emulate is influenced by the similarity between a reader and an exemplar in social or cultural background (Relatability) and how personally costly or demanding the exemplar’s actions are (Attainability). Study 1 found that university students reported more inspiration and related feelings after reading true stories about the good deeds of a recent fellow alum, compared to a famous moral exemplar from decades past. Study 2A developed a battery of short moral exemplar stories that more systematically varied Relatability and Attainability, along with a set of non-moral exemplar stories for comparison. Studies 2B and 2C examined the path from the story type to relatively low stakes altruism (donating to charity and intentions to volunteer) through perceived attainability and relatability, as well as elevation and pleasantness. Together, our studies suggest that it is primarily the relatability of the moral exemplars, not the attainability of their actions, that inspires more prosocial motivation, at least regarding acts that help others at a relatively low cost to oneself.

General Discussion

Stories can describe moral exemplars who are more or less similar to the reader (relatability) and who engage in acts that are more or less difficult to emulate (attainability). The overarching aim of this research was to address whether prosocial motivation is increased by greater attainability, relatability, or both. Overall, as predicted, more relatable and attainable exemplar stories generate greater inspiration (Study 1) and emulation of prosociality on some measures (Study 2), with perceived relatability being most influential. We developed a battery of ecologically valid exemplar stories that systematically varied attainability and relatability. Although differences in our story types did not produce detectable changes in prosocial behavior, perceived attainability and relatability are highly relative to the individual and thus difficult to systematically manipulate for all or even most participants. For instance, the average American might relate little to a Russian retiree, while others in our studies might do so easily (e.g., if their parents grew up in the Soviet Union). Similarly, donating $50 USD to charity is a major sacrifice for some Americans but not others. So, it was important for us to directly examine the effects of perceived attainability and relatability on prosociality.

The path analyses conducted in Studies 2B and 2C suggest in particular that the perceived relatability—not attainability—of a moral exemplar tends to increase emulation among readers.  The more attainable stories and perceived attainability did not positively predict emotional and behavioral outcomes, but the more relatable stories and perceived relatability did. This suggests that the relatability of exemplars is more fundamental in motivating people compared with the attainability of their acts. Another possibility is that highly attainable moral actions require little personal sacrifice, such as donating $1 to a charity, which is not particularly inspiring and in some cases is perhaps even seen as insulting (compare Thomson and Siegel 2013). Further research could explore these possibilities.