Thinking About Your Childhood Leads to More Prosocial Behavior
March 21, 2012 5 Comments
There are times when you can’t stop yourself from being a jackass. Maybe you’re in line at the grocery store and the person in front of you forgets an item. Without even an apologetic glance, they scamper away to retrieve it, blissfully unaware that the efficient thing to do is finish paying and re-enter the line, and you’re left with smoke billowing out your ears because you’ll be late for dinner all because this idiotic person can’t use one of the million smartphone apps dedicated to grocery shopp—–well, you understand what I’m saying.
The point is that at these times it would nice to have a little help behaving in a more prosocial manner. According to a new study, thinking about childhood memories can provide that assistance, even if the memories are about the time you peed your pants while dancing with Susie Martinez at the 4th grade Spring Fling Dance.
Drawing on research on memory and moral psychology, we propose that childhood memories elicit moral purity, which we define as a psychological state of feeling morally clean and innocent. In turn, heightened moral purity leads to greater prosocial behavior. In Experiment 1, participants instructed to recall childhood memories were more likely to help the experimenter with a supplementary task than were participants in a control condition, and this effect was mediated by moral purity. In Experiment 2, the same manipulation increased the amount of money participants donated to a good cause, and both implicit and explicit measures of moral purity mediated the effect. Experiment 3 provides further support for the process linking childhood memories and prosocial behavior through moderation. In Experiment 4, we found that childhood memories led to punishment of others’ ethically questionable actions. Finally, in Experiment 5, both positively valenced and negatively valenced childhood memories increased helping compared to a control condition.
The findings point to the larger potential of simple cues or thoughts that can influence behavior at the margin. Thinking of childhood memories is one of thousands of these cues, and if even 10 of them can be learned and internalized, they will begin to change the way a person acts in social situations.
Are you tired, frustrated, and despondent over the academic and social challenges of being in 11th grade? Take 30 seconds and think about your childhood. Maybe it will help at the margin. Maybe it won’t. But if people start experimenting with these kinds of psychology “hacks” at a young age, by the time they’re adults they’ll have a fully developed arsenal of tools that will help them cope with the world around them.
The challenge is that this kind of thing isn’t easy to teach. If you put a bunch of 12-year-olds in a room and attempt to talk about what to do “when you’re feeling sad or angry,” you’ll end up with an hour of snark and a bunch of Urban Dictionary synonyms for “fecal matter.” Hopefully, better technology can help solve the problem — we’re getting close to the point where funny videos and addictive role playing video games may be able to succeed where conflict resolution workshops have fallen short.
Gino, F., & Desai, S. (2012). Memory lane and morality: How childhood memories promote prosocial behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102 (4), 743-758 DOI: 10.1037/a0026565