June 12, 2012

World-Bettering Example 3

    Heroism Is Contagious

       I recently read about a couple of social psychology studies that left me feeling pretty I-told-you-so-ish.
        Participants were told they were taking part in a memory study.  They watched short television clips, wrote down what they remembered seeing and how the clip made them feel, and were paid for their participation.  After they thought the study was over, they were asked if they'd volunteer to help with an unpaid study.  Another, similar study ended with participants being asked to "help out" an experimenter with some dull extra task.  In both cases, participants who had watched a television clip celebrating virtuous behavior were considerably more likely to volunteer for extra service than those who had watched a neutral clip.  In other words, exposure to the example of heroism makes people more heroic.
        The experimenters are not sure exactly how this effect works.  Do the "warm fuzzies" change something in the brain?  Do people who have just stated on an assessment that they're feeling inspired feel compelled to live up to those claims?  What exactly is going on here?  Well, obviously the social psychologists are interested in studying the causes further, but I'm more interested in pointing out the implications of the results.
        If we know that people really do respond to the examples in their lives, that incidents of goodness really do fuel further goodness, that learning about heroes can make heroes of the rest of us…  If we know, in short, that virtue can be contagious, this is just one more confirmation of the power of stories to make the world a better place.  This is exactly why it's so important to hold up high ideals in the books we read and write.  It means that when people of all ages read books about characters with courage and integrity, they will be more likely to try to follow those examples.  It means that when we're shown worlds in which characters work to Do the Right Thing, we are more likely to try to be those characters in our own world.  So make sure that the next book you read is a heroic book, and help make the world a better place!

[Picture: The Enormous Turnip, rubber block print by AEGN, 2008.]
(I read about these studies at the Psycho Babble blog.)

1 comment:

Pax said...

I'm afraid that the opposite is probably also true. If we fill our heads with TV, movies, and books peopled with self-centered, mean-spirited, violent characters, we will unwittingly emulate them to some degree.