Good news begets better people.
That was the conclusion of new research released Tuesday by the University of British Columbia, that found people with a strong sense of "moral identity" were inspired to do good when they read media stories about Good Samaritans' selfless acts.
According to lead author Karl Aquino, who studies forgiveness and moral behaviour issues, four separate studies found a direct link between a person's exposure to media accounts of extraordinary virtue and their yearning to change the world.
He said media reports could potentially play a crucial role in the mobilization of history makers if less attention was paid to negative coverage.
'Focusing on individual examples of extraordinary goodness within the crisis may be a more effective and subtle way to encourage people.' —Study lead author Karl Aquino
"Our study indicates that if more attention was devoted to recounting stories of uncommon acts of human virtue, the media could have a quantifiable positive effect on the moral behaviour of a significant group of people," said Aquino, a professor at the Sauder School of Business at UBC.
"The news media have a tendency to celebrate bad behaviour, from Charlie Sheen's recent exploits to articles that focus the spotlight on criminal and other aberrant behaviour."
The findings, to be published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by the American Psychological Association, suggested people were not likely to act on reports that were merely positive.
"These things have to be beyond just everyday goodness," Aquino said in an interview. "We help our neighbours all the time, we volunteer for things — we're talking here about really exceptional acts of virtue.
"Acts that require enormous sacrifice, that put people at risk for the sake of others."
Two groups in study
In one of the studies, researchers conducted an experiment with 63 male and female subjects. One group was first assigned to complete a word search that including words with moral connotations, such as "compassionate," "honest," and "kind." A second group completed a word search comprised of morally neutral words of everyday objects.
Participants were then randomly assigned to read one of two news stories, both about positive human interactions.
However, only one recounted an act of uncommon goodness, describing a 2006 shooting at an Amish schoolhouse. Days after the incident, parents offered forgiveness and financial assistance to the widow of the man who shot their children.
The second story recounted a couples' experience of seeing a beautiful sunset.
Those exposed to the story of the Amish community's uncommon goodness gave 32 per cent more money to charity than those who read about the sunset.
In a second study, Aquino and his team were surprised to discover even a music video could inspire people to give generously — and not to the people you'd typically expect.
Study participants were shown a music video by Canadian artist Sarah McLachlan, in which it's described that all but $15 of the $150,000 budget for a video was donated to various international charities.
A second group was shown McLachlan's Adia video, which pictured her singing in front of various cityscapes — a pleasing, yet not uncommonly good act.
Those who watched the charitable video were more likely to open their wallets, Aquino found, despite the fact that the charity was somewhat controversial, reintegrating former prisoners back into the community.
"It's a group of people that generally wouldn't evoke lots of sympathy, but yet we show that when you're presenting people with an example of virtuous action, that it can make them think differently about these kinds of people — people who may be outside of their radar, as far as the kinds they would want to help."
Based on his research, Aquino also said the media could play a strategic role in helping the fundraising efforts for natural disasters like the recent earthquake in Japan.
"Focusing on individual examples of extraordinary goodness within the crisis may be a more effective and subtle way to encourage people to donate than inundating them with stories and pictures of need and desperation," he said.
Yet not everyone is inspired by stories of extraordinary greatness.
"Not everyone thinks that Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa is beautiful," said Aquino, who co-authored the study with University of Michigan researcher, Brent McFerran, and Marjorie Laven, a communications professional from Vancouver Island. "There are some people who are more attuned or open to these experiences than others."
People who are already more connected to being a moral person are more likely to be affected.
"These are the ones that we find are more receptive to seeing virtuous acts," he said.
Aquino said he didn't know if a person's culture or nationality plays any part in determining what they deem "virtuous."