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Childhood Memories Provoke Charitable Behavior

New Harvard University research suggests childhood memories stimulate selflessness.
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Remember your first bicycle? How about your first pet? If such inquiries conjure up images from your formative years, be grateful: Briefly reliving moments from childhood may make you a better person.

According to a Harvard Business School Working Paper, triggering childhood memories stimulates people to behave more helpfully and charitably. Researchers Francesca Gino and Sreedhari Desai report these early memories activate feelings of moral purity linked in our minds with the innocence of youth.

Surprisingly, the results of their experiments suggest it doesn’t matter if a childhood memory is happy or sad. Either way, evoking that early stage of life and the sense of innate goodness it suggests appear to be an effective catalyst for pro-social behavior.

The researchers describe four experiments that provide evidence for their thesis. The first featured 113 undergraduates, half of whom spent five to 10 minutes writing an essay about a specific childhood memory and the emotions it evoked. The others wrote about a recent trip to the supermarket.

Afterward, all rated their current emotional state and feelings of moral purity, responding to such statements as “I feel innocent.”

They were then told the experiment was over, but offered “the option of helping the experimenter with an extra task, described as pilot testing for another project.” This involved answering a brief questionnaire about sports and health habits.

Seventy-five percent of participants who had described a scene from their childhood expressed willingness to help out the experimenter by completing the extra task, compared to 54.5 of those who had mentally traveled down the produce aisle.

The second experiment, featuring 103 undergrads, was similar to the first, except that in conclusion, participants were asked whether they wanted to donate money to help the survivors of the Haitian earthquake (which had taken place the week before). Once again, those who recalled childhood memories were more likely to help, with 61.5 giving money compared to 41.2 percent of the control group.

In another test, the participants — 194 adults, some of whom were parents — were randomly assigned to either write about a good childhood memory, a bad childhood memory or that trip to the grocery store. Afterward, they read a purportedly true story about a student who was going through a rough time after being injured in an auto accident. They expressed their feelings about the man and reported their willingness to help him out by taking notes at a class he couldn’t attend.

Those who had recalled childhood memories expressed more empathy for the man and were more willing to assist him. Interestingly, there was no significant difference between those who wrote about good times and bad times.

Gino and Desai found no connection between these pro-social attitudes and any feelings of nostalgia they brought up. Rather, they write, “people’s mental representation of childhood is linked to the construct ‘moral purity,’” and when that notion is activated in their minds by childhood memories, they are more likely to behave in ways that reflect those moral strictures.

So should we all keep a photo of our first dog Skip — the one Dad ran over with the station wagon — on our desks, as a cue to act less selfishly? Perhaps so. Gino and Desai note approvingly that some major employers, including Google, “organize their space such that employees are surrounded by toys and colorful furniture.” No wonder they’re not evil.

But the researchers also uncovered a more complicated aspect of this phenomenon. In another experiment, conducted along similar lines, participants read a story about ethically questionable behavior. (A job applicant seizes an opportunity to obtain private information that will increase the likelihood he’ll be hired.) They were then asked to judge the ethics of the person involved and indicate how harshly he should be punished.

Compared to the control group, those who had written about a childhood memory judged his behavior as more unethical and indicated they would punish him more severely. Those feelings of moral purity apparently inspired them to expect — if not demand — the same purity in others.

So evoking childhood memories doesn’t produce the sort of nuanced ethical thinking that is arguably appropriate for dealing with real-world situations. But it could be an effective strategy for soliciting charitable donations.

Charles Dickens knew this intuitively: Gino and Desai note that after the miserly Scrooge revisits his childhood in A Christmas Carol, he expresses regret for not giving a boy a coin the night before. Even for the humbug-inclined, it seems, memories of a tender age activate tender feelings.

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