Memory Lane and Morality: Childhood Memories Promote Prosocial Behavior


In this research, students of Harvard University conducted five experiments testing the relationship between childhood memories, moral purity, and prosocial behavior. They described how memories based on past experiences help create our identities and how by sharing them, we can strengthen our social relationships. They stated that “at any given moment, only a subset of our autobiographical memories are accessible or active in our mind, and that subset influences how we view ourselves at that moment” (qtd. in Gino, F., & Desai, S. D.). Their purpose was to focus on how childhood memories influences how morally pure we see ourselves, which leads to greater prosocial behavior. They conducted five different experiments, but for the sake of the length of this paper, I will be focusing on the first one because it fits within the scope of the goal of the experiment and the learning in class the best.
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In this experiment, they wanted to see if remembering one’s own childhood triggered a sense of moral purity. Then, they tested whether or not that feeling of moral purity motivated people to help others in need. The participants included one hundred thirteen undergraduate students from a university in the southeastern United States, with just over half, being female and the rest male. They were given computers in a laboratory room where they were given instructions on writing two essays, spending five to ten minutes on each. One was about something they do often, and the other was about a specific event in their life. In the first essay, they were all asked to describe their detailed morning routine to hide the purpose of the study. The second essay was conditioned. Some participants were asked to write several paragraphs about a positive childhood memory in detail so the reader could understand how they were feeling at the time. The other participants were asked to describe the last time they were at the supermarket and one item that they bought.
They were then given three sets of questions that had were asked to answer on a 7- point scale. The first described how much they felt each of the ten positive emotions (attentive, interested, alert, enthusiastic, excited, inspired, proud, determined, strong, and active) and ten negative emotions (distressed, upset, hostile, irritable, scared, afraid, ashamed, guilty, nervous, and jittery). The second was about their agreement with moral purity items (“I feel innocent,” and “I feel morally pure”) and five personality-related filler items. The mean of the two answers was used to measure moral purity. The final set was a two question manipulation check. They were asked to rate how well they agreed with the two statements “the writing task I completed made me think about the time I was a child” and “the writing task I completed made me go back to my childhood”.
At the end of the experiment, they were given a message stating that the experiment was complete and that they had the option of helping the experimenter with a “pilot testing for another project.” It specified that it was optional and not a part of the original experiment. If they agreed, they were given a brief questionnaire about sports and health habits. If they said no, the questionnaire was skipped. Finally, they were all asked to guess the hypothesis of the study and if they had any suspicions about the experiment, then were debriefed.
The experimenters broke down their results into seven different categories: preliminary analyses, manipulation check, moral purity, prosocial behavior, mediation by moral purity, the positive and negative affect, and an overall conclusion. In the preliminary analyses, they found that for the essay portion, participants wrote about a wide range of different topics such as music, friends, first time activities, etc. At the end of the experiment, three participants revealed that they believed the optional survey was what the experimenters were really interested in, so they were not included in the following analyses for unbiased results, although the results were the same regardless. In the manipulation check, they concluded that there experiment was effective. Participants who were asked to think more about their childhood said that the writing assignment made them more likely to think about when they were kids (M = 5.43, SD = 1.37) compared to the people in the controlled condition groups (M = 2.03, SD = 1.49).
In moral purity, their hypothesis was also correct. Participants in the childhood condition had a higher mean of moral purity (M = 3.73, SD = 1.79) than the controlled participants (M = 2.38, SD = 1.41). In the mediation by moral purity section, “both condition and moral purity were entered into a logistic regression model predicting helping on the extra task, as hypothesized, moral purity was significant, but condition was no longer significant” (Gino, F., & Desai, S. D.). Then, using the bootstrapping method from Preacher and Hayes (2004), they found a 95% confidence interval for the indirect effect of condition on helping behavior through self-reported moral purity that revealed that moral purity was a mediator in the experiment just as they thought.
With affect, they found that both groups of participants reported the same levels of both positive and negative affect, meaning that affect was not positively correlated to childhood memories and that the control condition was not more tedious than the childhood condition. As for the final discussion, the experimenters were correct that thinking of childhood memories did in fact lead to prosocial behavior and being more likely to help due to having a higher sense of moral purity.
This experiment relates to our class because of the overall discussion of prosocial behavior. Although childhood memories was not mentioned in the book, I think it is still another great example of an emotional trigger of helping. Both the book and the experiment mention a positive affect. Thinking of happy childhood memories can put a person in a better mood as they reminisce on the past. The book discusses how being in a positive mood makes a person more likely to help someone who is struggling. I also believe that if you see a situation that reminds you of a situation where someone helped you and it worked out, then you will want to in a sense return the favor onto the next person and share your great outcome. This would be the third stage of learning prosocial behavior: they help due to internalized values meaning that they are “listening to the voice of their moral conscience rather than pursuing material goodies or approval from others” (Greenberg, J., Schmader, T., Arndt, J., & Landau, M. J.). The experiment focuses on morality and moral purity. I think this can also lead to acts of altruism. When we are happy we are more likely to do something to make others feel the same way, whether we get additional benefits or not. In a way, making someone else happy will lead to us becoming even happier, but in that mood, we are not thinking of ourselves. In the experiment, they were asked if they wanted to help with an additional project and those who were triggered by positive emotion from recalling their past were more likely to do so.

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