Why do good people do bad things? Often, they are nudged on by the conformity bias. People have evolved to tend to take their cues as to how to dress, what to eat, and how to act from those around them, particularly in their in-group. Even people’s moral actions and judgments are heavily influenced by the actions and judgments of those around them.
In the workplace, as employees move from less ethical to more ethical environments (and vice versa) their own behavior will tend to reflect the standards of the environment they are currently in. At least one study indicates that people are more likely to follow others when they do bad things than when they do good things, probably because they will benefit from doing the bad thing and the self-serving bias gives them an extra push in that direction.
However, there is also evidence that often the conformity bias pushes people to emulate those around them who are doing good things, so that they also are more likely to do those good things. In this setting, the conformity bias is reinforced by an other-praising emotion that we at Ethics Unwrapped call moral elevation (see our video on Moral Emotions). In a blog post called “I Need a Hero: Why Others’ Good Deeds Make Us Better People,” we explained how the emotion of moral elevation can inspire prosocial behavior:
We recently revisited Phillip Hallie’s book, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, about the little village of Le Chambon in southern France whose residents in World War II risked their lives for years to shelter thousands of refugees, mostly Jews, and help them escape. The village became known throughout Europe as the safest place for Jews to escape to. The village was largely Protestant, and much of the credit for leading the village’s actions goes to Pastor André Trocmé of the Reformed Church of France, the community’s spiritual leader. Trocmé was not a perfect man, but he spent much of his adult life courageously standing up for what he believed in (including nonviolence). He resisted extreme pressure from France’s political leaders, his church’s leaders, and the Nazis. And he was willing to risk his own life, as well as the lives of his family and his parishioners, in order to do the right thing. Trocmé was motivated by his religious beliefs. His wife, Magda, was not religious at all but nonetheless was the first person in the village to open her door to refugees. She helped simply because the people needed help. That was reason enough for her. Reading such stories causes most of us to feel the moral emotion of elevation. We need a little elevation in this day and age. Not only does it make us feel good, it often prompts us to act prosocially ourselves.
We bring this topic up now because we are admirers of Cal-Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner and he has written a new book: Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life. Working with NYU’s Jonathan Haidt, Keltner defines awe as “the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your current understanding of the world.”
Like Dr. Kristjan Kristjansson of the University of Birmingham, we are not fond of the Keltner/Haidt definition of awe and like Professor Ashley Coates of the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, prefer our University of Texas colleague Paul Woodruff’s decision to connect awe to feelings of reverence. Overall, we even prefer the dictionary.com definition of awe: “an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, fear, etc., produced by that which is grand, sublime, extremely powerful, or the like.”
If you’ve attended a Springsteen concert, peered into the Grand Canyon for the first time, or seen the Mona Lisa with your own eyes, you may well have felt awe. If people asked you about the experience, you likely said: “Springsteen [or the Grand Canyon or the Mona Lisa] was awesome!” It is unlikely that you said or thought, “Wow, that transcended my current understanding of the world.”
What causes people to feel awe? In Keltner’s view, there are eight “wonders of life”: (1) the strength, courage, and kindness [and extraordinary virtue and ability] of others; (2) collective effervescence in actions like dance and sports; (3) nature; (4) music; (5) art and visual design; (6) mystical encounters; (7) encountering life and death; and (8) big ideas and epiphanies.
Only one of Keltner’s eight “wonders of life” that inspire awe has a moral dimension, and that is #1. Interestingly, Keltner’s research finds that of the eight causes of wonder the one that “most commonly led people around the world to feel awe” was not music or nature or art, it was category #1–“other people’s courage, kindness, strength, or overcoming. Around the world, we are most likely to feel awe when moved by moral beauty.” (p. 11) Says Keltner: “Exceptional virtue, character, and ability—moral beauty—operate according to a different aesthetic, one marked by a purity and goodness of intention and action, and moves us to awe.” (p. 11)
We would say the virtue, courage, and strength of the heroes of Le Chabom causes people to experience the emotion we call “moral elevation.” When we view such moral heroism, we don’t think: “Awesome!” We think: “That is heroic. That is the right thing to do. That is the thing that I should do.”
Whether we refer to our reaction as “awe,” “moral beauty,” or “moral elevation,” Keltner urges us all to pay attention to the good things, the kind things, the generous things that people do for others. If we do so, we will likely be inspired and will do more good things ourselves as did the villagers in Le Chambon when they witnessed the moral courage of Pastor André Trocmé and his wife.
Most of Keltner’s book does not relate to morality, but makes the point that experiencing awe frequently can be good for us for several reasons:
- “[W]hen we experience awe, regions of the brain that are associated with the excesses of the ego, including self-criticism, anxiety, and even depression, quiet down.” (p. 36)
- “[A]we shifts us from a competitive dog-eat-dog mindset to perceive that we are part of networks of more interdependent, collaborating individuals.” (p. 37)
- “Wonder, the mental state of openness, questioning, curiosity, and embracing mystery arise out of experiences of awe.” (p. 39)
- “Awe expands what philosopher Peter Singer calls the circle of care, the network of people we feel kindness toward.” (p. 40)
We recommend Keltner’s book and remind you that what we call moral elevation (but may be termed “awe” or “moral beauty”) can incline people to act more morally than they might otherwise have done. When you do the right thing, you not only act morally yourself but you may motivate others to do so as well, starting a virtuous circle. Says Keltner:
Empirical studies have charted the power of witnessing others’ courage, kindness, strength, and overcoming. In a study typical of this literature, people first view a brief video of an inspiring act—of Mother Teresa, for example, or Desmond Tutu—or a moving teacher. Or participants are asked to simply recall a personal encounter with everyday moral beauty. These encounters lead people to feel more inspired and optimistic. They feel more integrated in their community—that expanding circle of care. Their faith in their fellow humans and hope for the human prospect rises. They hear a voice akin to a calling to become a better person, and they often imitate others’ acts of courage, kindness, strength, and overcoming. (p. 81)
Ashley Coates, “Awe’s Place in Ethics,” Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 25: 851-864 (2022).
Philip Hallie, Les Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There (1994).
Dacher Keltner, Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life (2023).
Dacher Keltner & Jonathan Haidt, “Approaching Awe, a Moral, Spiritual, and Aesthetic Emotion,” Cognition and Emotion, 17: 295-314 (2003).
Kristjan Kristjansson, “Awe: An Aristotelian Analysis of a Non-Aristotelian Virtuous Emotion,” Philosophia, 45: 125-142 (2017).
Lamar Pierce & Jason Snyder, “Ethical Spillovers in Firms: Evidence from Vehicle Emissions Testing,” Management Science 54(11): 1891-1903 (2008).
Hope Reese, “How a Bit of Awe Can Improve Your Health,” New York Times, Jan. 3, 2023.
Paul Woodruff, Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue (2001).
Conformity Bias: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/conformity-bias
In-group/Out-group Bias: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/in-groupout-group
Moral Emotions: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/moral-emotions
Self-serving Bias: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/self-serving-bias
Related Blog Posts:
“I Need a Hero: Why Others’ Good Deeds Make Us Better People,” at https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/i-need-a-hero-why-others-good-deeds-make-us-better-people.