Elevation and the Revelation of Our Better Selves

By Jonathan Haidt in Scientific Background on February 11th, 2007 / No Comments

Here’s a puzzle: Why do we care when a stranger does a good deed for a stranger? Most theories in the social sciences say that people’s actions and feelings are motivated by self-interest. So why are we sometimes moved to tears by the good deeds or heroic actions of others?I study the moral emotions. I study the gut feelings and flashes of shame, anger, and disgust that make us feel condemnation or even hatred towards those who do bad things.

My early work was on the emotion of disgust – a fascinating emotion that, for some reason, people seem not to want to think about. It makes good evolutionary sense that human beings should have an emotion that makes us feel repulsion towards rotten food, excrement, dead bodies, and other physical objects that are full of dangerous bacteria and parasites.

It also makes sense that disgust should make us hypersensitive to contagion, that is, we feel disgust towards anything that touched something that touched something that we find disgusting. Because bacteria and parasites evolved to spread by contact, our minds evolved to keep track of the contact history of the things that we touch and eat. So far so good.

Most People Don’t Like Social Offenses
But when my colleagues and I actually asked people in several countries to list the things they think are disgusting, we repeatedly found that most of the things people list are social offenses, such as hypocrisy, racism, cruelty, and betrayal. How on earth did a food-based and very corporeal emotion become a social and moral emotion? The short version of our attempt at an answer is that the motivational effects of disgust – distancing, separation, and rejection – may have been designed to deal with physical threats, but they were well-suited for dealing with social threats as well.

The emotion of disgust was therefore recruited, or co-opted, over the last few tens of thousands of years, to help people form groups, reject deviants, and build a moral community. We find social actions disgusting when they indicate to us that a person is in some way sub-human, morally defective, or in some other way “low” on a vertical dimension that runs from our conception of absolute good (God) above, to absolute evil (the Devil) below. This vertical dimension is found in many cultures, for example, in Hindu and Buddhist ideas that people are reincarnated at higher or lower levels depending on their moral behavior in this life.

Elevation – Someone Moves Up
I thought about the social nature of disgust in this way for several years, and about what exactly it means when someone moves “down” on this vertical dimension. But then, one day in 1997, I had my positive psychology awakening. I looked up. I had never thought about what emotion we feel when we see someone move up, acting in a super-human or saintly way. But once I began looking up, I began to see a whole new set of emotional responses. I have begun calling this set of responses “elevation.” I have now done several experiments on elevation, and here is what I have learned.

Psychologists generally define emotions by their component parts, such as eliciting conditions, physiological changes, facial expressions, and motivations. Elevation can therefore be defined as follows:

  1. Elevation is elicited by witnessing acts of moral beauty (e.g., compassion, courage, loyalty).
  2. Elevation is experienced as a physical sensation of warmth, glowing, or openness in the chest, and sometimes as a tingling in the skin, particularly along the back, neck, and head.
  3. Elevation motivates people to move towards higher moral ends, e.g., to help others, or to become a better people themselves.

Elevation is widely known across cultures and historical eras. You probably recognize it yourself. But for some reason no psychologist has studied it empirically. Instead, psychologists have focused most of their energies on the negative moral emotions, especially guilt and anger. Psychologists have thought about morality primarily as a system of rules that prevents people from hurting each other and taking their possessions. But I believe that morality is much richer and more balanced. Most people don’t want to rape, steal, and kill.

What they really want is to live in a moral community where people treat each other well, and in which they can satisfy their needs for love, productive work, and a sense of belonging to groups that they are proud of. When we see people behave in petty, cruel, or selfish ways it gives us a visceral sense that we do not live in such a world. But when we see a stranger do a simple act of kindness for another stranger, it gives us a thrilling sense that maybe we do live in such a world.

Look At The Brighter Side of Human Nature Too
The fact that we can be so responsive to the good deeds of others, even when we do not benefit directly, is a very important fact about human nature. Positive psychology takes this fact seriously, and seeks to create a balanced picture of human nature and human potential. Yes, people can be terribly cruel, and we must continue our study of the conditions that lead to racism, violence, and other social ills. But there is a brighter side to human nature too, and psychology ought to look more closely at it.

One of the pleasures for me of studying elevation is that people sometimes tell me about their own elevation experiences. A hallmark of elevation is that, like disgust, it is contagious. It rubs off on others, but in a good way. When an elevation story is told well, it elevates all who hear it. One of the best such stories was sent to me last December by David Whitford. Several years ago, David’s Unitarian church asked its members to write their own “spiritual autobiography,” that is, an account of how they came to be the spiritual person they are now.

Tears of Compassion and Celebration
While reflecting on his spiritual experiences David grew puzzled over why he is so often moved to tears during the course of church services. He noticed that there are two kinds of tears. The first he calls “tears of compassion,” such as those he shed during a sermon on Mother’s Day on the subject of children who are growing up abandoned or neglected. These cases feel to him like “being pricked in the soul,” after which “love pours out” for those who are suffering. But the second kind of tear is very different. He calls them “tears of celebration,” but he could just as well have called them “tears of elevation.” I will end this article with his words, which give a more eloquent description of elevation than anything I could write:

There’s another kind of tear. This one’s less about giving love and more about the joy of receiving love, or maybe just detecting love (whether it’s directed at me or at someone else). It’s the kind of tear that flows in response to expressions of courage, or compassion, or kindness by others.

A few weeks after Mother’s Day, we met here in the sanctuary after the service and considered whether to become a Welcoming Congregation [a congregation that welcomes gay people].

When John stood in support of the resolution, and spoke of how, as far as he knew, he was the first gay man to come out at First Parish, in the early 1970s, I cried for his courage. Later, when all hands went up and the resolution passed unanimously, I cried for the love expressed by our congregation in that act. That was a tear of celebration, a tear of receptiveness to what is good in the world, a tear that says it’s okay, relax, let down your guard, there are good people in the world, there is good in people, love is real, it’s in our nature. That kind of tear is also like being pricked, only now the love pours in.

Published in: Research News & Opportunities in Science and Theology, October 2001

Source: University of Virginia

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