Empowering People through Behavioral Science
Purpose & Prosocial Behavior Purpose & Well-Being

Righting Wrongs and Paying it Forward: How Emotions Promote Unique Prosocial Behaviors

By Brittany Christian, Janina Steinmetz


At the heart of our moral dilemmas is a battle between good and evil. Having a moral framework provides a set of guidelines by which we often define and assess purpose and meaning in our lives. While we may squabble over what appear to be morally grey areas, we are all motivated to see more good than bad in ourselves, and we long to see justice and benevolence in the world. The experience and expression of love, along with the actualization of fairness and equality are key components of a life filled with purpose and meaning. When our moral values are violated, it evokes a sense of outrage. When we witness others upholding or exceeding them, there is a feeling of warmth and awe that inspires us to be better. The different types of moral emotions that we regularly experience (whether boiling with rage at an atrocity or inspired by the selflessness of another) bring the ideas of morality and purpose readily to mind. Is it the case that this heightened emotional moral awareness serves as a catalyst for a broad spectrum of moral actions, or might the nature of our emotional responses evoke specific types of prosocial behaviors? For example, can the experience of outrage promote kindness, or does it orient us more specifically towards more closely associated prosocial goals such as restoring justice?

Image ©: Coco Curranski 2011

A recent paper by Julie Van de Vyer and Dominic Abrams at the University of Kent explored this question to determine the types of moral behaviors that were promoted by moral outrage (an impassioned sense of injustice) and moral elevation (feelings of warmth and admiration towards an individual demonstrating exemplary moral behavior). Specifically, the authors wanted to determine whether any moral emotion would promote prosocial behavior or if certain emotions only increased specific kinds of moral actions. In three studies, the authors used short video clips to evoke either the sense of moral elation, moral outrage, both of these, or neither (control). Then, the authors measured participants’ donations to charity, a benevolent act (study 1), prosocial political action intentions, a justice-oriented act (experiment 2) and ascriptions of compensation and punishment after another individual has been treated unfairly (experiment 3). What the authors found was that the feeling of elevation (but not outrage) increased donations to charity, an act of kindness. Experiments 2 and 3 then demonstrated that outrage (but not elevation) promoted political action intent and assignments of compensation and punishment following unfairness, behaviors centered on justice concerns. Taken together, what these results suggest is that our emotional reactions to moral violations and inspirations drive unique prosocial behaviors. In other words, when we see a wrong, we want to right it and when we see an act of kindness, we want to emulate it. Moral emotions don’t, however, seem to generally promote more prosocial behavior (e.g., outrage to injustice did not promote donations to charity).

The role emotion plays in promoting prosocial behaviors dovetails with previous research covered at New Paths to Purpose, which suggests that simply thinking about helping others is not enough to promote helping behavior. Instead, how you think about your prosocial goals – whether you are concrete or abstract – plays a role in your likelihood of following through. It seems that the nuances of our emotions and cognitions uniquely motivate prosocial behavior. As we continue to pursue the science of purpose, we develop keen insight into the types of emotions and cognitive processes that stimulate the behaviors that enrich our lives with purpose and make the world a better place for others and ourselves. 


Brittany Christian is a Research Professional (post-doctoral fellow) in the NPP Network, based at the Center for Decision Research at Chicago Booth.
Janina Steinmetz is a Research Professional (post-doctoral fellow) in the NPP Network, based at the Center for Decision Research at Chicago Booth.

Associated Project Theme: Purpose & Prosocial Behavior Purpose & Well-Being

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