Monday, 8 March 2010


A recent paper by Simone Schnall and her colleagues (2010) shows that watching certain kinds of scenes on television increased people's inclination to act altruistically. In two experiments Schnall et al. found that watching a seven-minute film clip from an episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show in which a musician paid tribute to his mentor and former music teacher, who had saved him from a life of gang activity and violence, increased altruism. The effect is referred to as elevation. The experimenters found it both in self-reports—people felt uplifted, optimistic about humanity, and wanting to become a better person—as well as in increased actual helping of someone else. The film clip from the Oprah Winfrey Show was autobiographical rather than fictional in the ordinary sense, but occasions in which characters act altruistically are not unusual in fiction. This kind of effect may be thought, perhaps, to counteract effects that many fear of violence on television.

It has been known for a long time, since the famous experiments of Alice Isen (e.g. Isen & Levin, 1972), that feeling happy facilitates the helping of others. In the second experiment of the current study, Schnall et al. included a control group in which participants became happy at watching a television episode that was funny. The results were that participants who watched the elevation clip had more subjective feelings of elevation and also did substantially and significantly more actual helping than those who watched the funny clip. As compared with those who watched the funny clip, those who watched the elevating clip spend approximately twice as long helping the experimenter in a tedious task.

Schnall and her colleagues discuss their result in terms of empathy. A way of thinking about their result is that it arises from identification (known to be important in fiction) which is now thought to be based on empathy. Perhaps empathy prompts recognition of, and aspiration to, what Hazel Markus and Paula Nurius (1986) have called a "possible self." If, on the one hand, media-based news and fiction let us know that life is often harsh and unjust, and is sometimes tragic then, on the other hand, it can show that kindness and altruism are possible for us human beings.

Alice Isen & P. F. Levin (1972). The effect of feeling good on helping: Cookies and kindness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 21, 384-388.

Hazel Markus & Paula Nurius (1986). Possible selves. American Psychologist, 41, 954-969.

Simone Schnall. Jean Roper & Daniel Fessler (2010). Elevation leads to altruistic behavior. Psychological Science, 21, published online 29 January.

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Anonymous said...

True altruism is an illusion: no person can ever perform an action that is soley to benefit of someone else, for doing something good for someone else will envitably lead to some sort of intangible satisfaction on the part of the benefactor.

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you, Anonymous, for this comment. I agree that this is an argument; the issue, as it seems to me, is what you want to follow from it. If you focus on intangible satisfaction for a benefactor then you might conclude that humans are essentially individual and that all we need to consider are individual rewards (satisfactions), but it's possible that what follows from altruism is that human life has an inherent social element, and this opens up a different perspective.

Anonymous said...

I find this contention cogent and logically.whatever point it has manifested has rationale behind.however,in this contemporary era of complexities created by human through technological advancenment have a profound effect on human behaviour or altruism might take a declining trajectory because every generation will not engender bill gates or warren buffett who in my view epitomizes generosity or philanthrophy.

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