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Uplifting Ways to Access Your Better Self

Researchers find physical elevation seems to trigger pro-social behavior.
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Did you make a New Year's resolution to be a better person in 2011? Not so easy, is it? If only there was some simple action you could take that would naturally inspire selfless behavior.

Newly published research identifies just such a morality-boosting maneuver. All you have to do, it seems, is get high.

As in, riding on an "up" escalator. Or sitting on an elevated perch.

A research team led by psychologist Lawrence Sanna of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill reports the experience of being physically higher influences people to act in pro-social ways. Writing in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, the researchers describe a series of experiments that support this uplifting concept.

Their work contains the latest fascinating findings on embodied cognition, the metaphor-based link between physical movement and one's thoughts and actions. Recent research has found assuming body positions associated with power can lead people to feel more powerful (and take more risks), and that the seemingly meaningless act of moving marbles upward can inspire positive emotions.

Sanna and his team suspected elevated height would inspire pro-social behavior, since the notion of rising above is "a metaphor for virtue across many cultures." As they point out, our tendency to associate "up" with "good" and "down" with "bad" can be seen in the concept of heaven above and hell down below.

Nor is this metaphor confined to religion: We "look up" to good people and "look down upon" bad ones. This association, they write, has infiltrated our minds to the point where increasing our physical elevation can inspire good deeds.

On two Saturday mornings in December 2009, research assistants volunteered as Salvation Army "bell-ringers" in a North Carolina shopping mall. For 30 minutes each day, one solicited funds for the needy from people who were just getting off an up escalator. Another approached people who had just stepped off a down escalator on the other side of the mall, while a third did the same at a location far from either escalator.

"Shoppers who rode the up escalator contributed more often than those who rode down," the researchers report. "Experiencing elevated physical height increased the virtuous act of making real charitable contributions."

In a second study, 60 undergraduates gathered in an auditorium, where they were randomly assigned to sit either on the stage (which required walking up a set of steps), in the orchestra pit (which required walking down a short staircase), or on the main floor.

After filling out personality questionnaires for 10 minutes, all were asked if they would stay a bit longer and help out a second experimenter by working on a separate task involving tracing figures. "Participants were told that they could work on these tasks for as long or short as they wanted — whatever they did would help," the researchers write.

"Participants onstage spent longer tracing than did those in the orchestra pit," Sanna and his colleagues report. "(The notion of) helping was 'turned on' in the high condition."

A third experiment suggests the impulse activated by elevation truly was compassion, rather than a morally neutral compulsion to simply do more. A fourth discovered this effect was also found in people who watched video clips of clouds filmed from an airplane window. Compared to others who had viewed video shot from the window of a passenger car, they subsequently were more likely to exhibit cooperative behavior.

"Together, our findings add to the theoretical proposition that once a particular metaphor is activated, whether through embodiment or through priming (as in watching the videos), it may produce metaphor-consistent changes in judgments and behaviors," the researchers write. "Elevating height may be another route to virtue, leading people to sacrifice their own self-interests."

So, if you want to access your (ahem) higher nature, try climbing a mountain — or at least trudge up the stairs to the attic. As the virtuous von Trapp family instinctively understood, moving to higher ground makes it more likely a person will stake out the moral high ground.