Thinking About Your Childhood Leads to More Prosocial Behavior

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


5 Responses to Thinking About Your Childhood Leads to More Prosocial Behavior

  1. Ben Weeks says:

    This article kind of explanes Albert Banduras view of observational learning where he believes that observational learning is the result of cognitive processes that are actively judgemental and constructive, not merely mechanical copying. his experiment of the little kids that watch a video of an adult violently playing with a bobo doll then in return they play violently with the bobo doll. but on the other hand the kids w didnt watch the video played with other things or played “nicely” with the bobo doll. the kids who watched the video saw the the adult was reinforced with a treat so the kids thought that if they played violently they would in return get something. so in conclusion the expectation of reinforcement affects the performance of what has to be learned. so in one of the experiments above it called that the person recall memories of the past to cope. they are merely playing Banduras experiment in that they are reinforcing their behavior as a child.

  2. Reama Darwish says:

    This is definitely explaining the law of effect and latent learning. Everything we do in life is because of a reaction we got from something, or a consequence whether it was positive or negative. A lot of the things that happen to us when we’re younger shape us when we’re older. It could be completely irrelavant yet the time you couldn’t score that goal during your first soccer game could be the reason you always want to give up or feel like you’re a failure. I agree completely with this article because as human beings we all learn from experience or past experiences that we may not ackowledge at the moment but they really have a powerful effect on our actions, coping abillities, and/or social skills.

  3. Kyle Larson says:

    this artical is a very good example of how you can use behaviorism, discovered by Watson, to solve this problem with people. To do this, you would hae to train yourself. you would make the person leaving the line to get more food the neutral stimulous, and you thinking of your childhood the uncontrolled stimulus. Everytime the person leaves the line if you think thoughts of your childhood then you will be able to feel alot better and not get so angry, thus conditioning yourself. It may talke a while but once you learn it it will come naturally, and in many cases if you can train yourself well enough, anytime you are ina stressfull or angry situation, it may come natural to you to think of your childhood so you will be a much happier person

  4. This article is a great example of social behaviorism. This article explains how if you think about childhood memories, its a better way to react and or relate to situations going on around you. To me its a way to condition yourself in any stressful or angry situation. By thinking about childhood memories you can almost relate to the person that the situation is happening to. Above in the article, it talks about how “you” are standing in line and the person in front of you forgets something and has to leave the line and retrieve what they need. Whenever they come back they get right back to their spot. Thinking of a memory whenever you were a child that was embarrassing like forgetting a line in a school play or throwing up in the class room, can help you relate and almost have sympathy for the person who has to run out of line to get something. It is embarrassing to forget something in the checkout line especially if it is long. Relating a childhood memory to a situation happening around you, can help you cool down and actually understand what is happening in the situation.

  5. Casi09 says:

    I feel like this article really does explain how people behave on a day to day basis. Everything we do everyday is because of something we have or have not done in our past. I believe that everything happens for a reason, and everything that we did yesterday and the day before has led us to today. If we are in a bad mood or if we are having a bad day we could think about things that have happened in our past that could cheer us up, or we can relate to the person around us who is having a hard time. If we have experienced something like it before then we are more qualified to fix the situation. If we throw a temper tantrum every time something does not go our way what kind of example are we settng for the people around us. As for the whole leaving the line in te grocery store, I understand that it can be frusterating for the person who is behind you when you forget something and have to go back and get it but not everyone is perfect and some times people tend to forget things even as little as getting the milk. I know it is time consuming for the person who is meeting someone for dinner in 20 min but just think about when you are the person who forgets something. You wouldn’t want everyone behind you to be mad and rude therefore you shouldn’t be either.

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