Psycho Babble

Oprah: 2, Attenborough: 0

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By Jessica Love


 

Not long ago, waiting at a bus stop, I witnessed something odd: one woman picked a few wadded wrappers off the ground and threw them away (a rare enough occurrence on my Midwestern campus), and a second woman, just a minute later, offered a five-dollar bill to a stranger she perceived to be upset. The two do-gooders did not appear to know one another, nor was the five-dollar bill offered to the woman picking up the trash (it was actually offered to me—the wind was making my eyes water).

Not one, but two, acts of altruism at a bus stop? A psychologist who studies such things would probably say that the two acts might be related. Of course, asking a research psychologist whether two events are related can seem like asking Fox Mulder whether two events are related: you might well get the right answer, but you’ll definitely get a yes. As it happens, a group of social psychologists from Cambridge, Plymouth University, and UCLA have indeed advocated just such a position.

In one of their studies, participants watched a short television clip and, afterwards, wrote down what they remembered seeing (they were told they were taking part in a memory study), as well as how the clip made them feel. Then, after the participants were paid for their time, they were approached by the experimenter and asked to volunteer for a second, unpaid study. Those participants who had witnessed a television clip celebrating virtuous behavior—a segment from The Oprah Winfrey Show in which musicians thanked teachers who had mentored them earlier in life—were considerably more likely to volunteer than those participants who’d watched some of a David Attenborough ocean documentary. Simply observing altruism, the researchers argued, led more participants to volunteer. In another similar study, participants who had watched the Oprah clip spent twice as long “helping out” an experimenter by performing a dull task (solving simple math problems) than did participants who had watched either the Attenborough clip or an excerpt from the comedy Fawlty Towers. Thus, Oprah-affected participants did not just intend to be more helpful: they actually were.

How might this have occurred? The researchers interpret their findings in terms of “elevation,” that easily recognizable response known to the rest of us as “the warm fuzzies.” This certainly seems plausible: participants who’d watched Oprah rated themselves as feeling more “moved,” more “uplifted,” and having more desire to “become a better person” than those who watched the other clips.

But note that for both experiments ratings were solicited from participants before they were presented with the opportunity to behave altruistically. Could the act of rating their own emotions—of simply agreeing that they wanted to become a better person—have led the Oprah-watching participants to help so as not to behave in a way that was inconsistent with how they reported feeling just minutes before? In other words, was it altruism that inspired these participants, or did the “warm fuzzies,” like a strong cocktail, encourage the participants to commit to something they would soon regret?

Incidentally, for the version of the nature documentary Life released in the UK, David Attenborough was chosen to narrate; in America, the gig went to Oprah Winfrey. Who’s feeling better about this now?

Jessica Love recently received a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology and is currently a science writer and editor at Northwestern University.

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