Encouraging Our Better Selves Into Action

Did you know that the country of India and its online newcomers deliver millions of “Good Morning” messages daily to relatives and friends? How great is this action in spreading happiness and optimism to those close to the senders!

Wall Street Journal’s January 6-7, 2018 publication of “We Can Encourage Our Better Angels” is full of moral reminders that can aid in our very own promotion of helping others and doing the right thing morally to make this a better world. Author Christian Miller, Professor of Philosophy at Wake Forest University, states “There is the virtuous person we should be. There is who we actually are. And there is a big difference between the two.” So how do we get from Point A to Point B?

The good news is that we can improve our characters at any age.

To start, give a smile to all those who look your way. Miller suggests that “The fear of being embarrassed (or shamed, ostracized, ridiculed and so on) isn’t just a relic from our middle-school years. It is a serious obstacle to our helping other people, and we don’t always realize the powerful role it can play. We can remind ourselves that someone’s life is more important than what a stranger thinks of us.” Social science suggests ways we can all become better people, slowly and gradually. Here are the author’s three suggestions to do so.

1. MORAL REMINDERS. The more often we are reminded, the easier it is to choose the correct behavior the next time. In 2008, three groups of students were chosen to grade a very difficult 20 problem exam under adult supervision. The first group was promised .50 for each correct answer. These students solved an average of 3.4 problems. The second group (with the same promise) got to grade the tests themselves, recycle them, and report their accuracy unsupervised. They reported an average of 6.1 problems correct. Clearly, there appeared to be cheating going on here. The third group with the same opportunity to cheat, signed an honor code on honesty. They reported 3.1 problems as an average correct. Thanks to the moral reminder, the cheating disappeared.

2. ROLE MODELS. These individuals can help us see the world in a different and more moral way. They can be comprised of those close to us such as the clergy, parents, children, or friends. Other role models can be discovered in examples of great behavior we have read about from the Bible, or learned about in the arts, or become familiar with even briefly through limited acquaintances. For example, over several decades, social scientists have discovered that in emergencies, we are unlikely to help if those around us aren’t offering aid. (a. In a 1984 research study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, psychologists at the Cleveland State University, paired 112 participants each with a stranger/actor in a control room at different times. When a staged accident occurred in the adjoining room with the shouts of an unknown individual obviously in need of first aid, two different responses were given by each participant’s paired actor. The first response gave no reaction for helping the so-called “injured person.” In this case, participants only responded to give aid at a level of 6.21. But when the actor sprang to his feet in urgency to help the “injured individual,” his paired participant followed suit in helping at a level of 9.05. (b. Psychologists at the University of Western Ontario and Oxford University conducted a study of how role models can inspire people to give blood donations. Again with a staged partner/actor by their side, participants passed by a table with “Give Blood” posters. According to our author, “If the participant saw his or her companion sign up for the blood drive, 18 out of 27 participants signed up, too. When the day came to donate, nine of them even gave blood. But in the control situation, in which the participant walked alone by the blood drive, not one person ended up giving any blood.”

3. EDUCATION IN SELF-AWARENESS. A classic 1978 study was performed at the University of Montana with a lecture given to 12 in attendance. The subject was “How Groups Can Inhibit Helping Others.” Upon exiting the lecture, a staged emergency occurred. The vast majority (67%) offered assistance, even when others present did not.  With a control group of 15 students who didn’t attend the lecture, only 27% helped. Two weeks later another emergency was rigged to test the lasting effect of what the students had learned.  The effect of education had lasted, but to a lesser degree with 42% now responding to give aid. Similar to the above percentage, only 25% who had not been educated responded to the two week later accident.

So the next time you see dropped papers on the floor, or someone asks for aid in opening a locker, or more importantly, a sick person requires help in making a 911 call, don’t hesitate! You know what to do! Begin to develop your angel character now and put it to work!

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