by Matt Kelly
Professor strives to define an emotion
By Dan Heuchert
warm or glowing feeling in the chest, tears welling up, perhaps
even chills and a clenching of the throat. A desire to connect
with the person youve been watching. A new inclination to
participate in charitable activities.
you feel these things, chances are that you have just witnessed
something uplifting and may be experiencing the unofficial emotion
course, there is no official, government-sanctioned register of
emotions. Yet some modern psychologists are endeavoring to explore
and define feelings that had heretofore been considered ethereal
and well, not the sort of things subject to scientific study.
those involved in such study is U.Va. assistant professor of psychology
Jonathan Haidt, whose research seeks to define elevation, the
feeling triggered by witnessing acts of human moral beauty or
virtue. His work made him the unanimous choice to win the American
Psychological Associations second annual John Templeton
Positive Psychology Prize, a $100,000 award that Haidt received
May 29 in Philadelphia. The award, psychologys largest monetary
prize, is intended to encourage first-rate mid-career scientists
to devote their best efforts to positive psychology topics, such
as optimism, moral identity, self-control, goal-focused living,
thrift, courage and future-mindedness, according to the
date, researchers generally agree on definitions for only six
emotions: happiness, sadness, surprise, fear, disgust and anger.
A couple more are on the horizon, including amusement and relief.
seeking to define an emotion, researchers are compelled to pinpoint
several components, Haidt said. There should be something external
that triggers the feeling an elicitor. There should be
a measurable, physiological response. The emotion should cause
motivational and other changes to ones thinking. There is
often an expressive component that allows one to communicate the
emotion to other humans. And there is affective phenomenology
a sense of how it feels.
became interested in the field while in graduate school at the
University of Pennsylvania, where his adviser was Paul Rozin,
an expert in the psychology of eating. One element of Rozins
work was the emotion of disgust, chiefly as it related to food.
Those who witnessed others eating from the garbage, for example,
underwent predictable changes, both physiologically and psychologically.
lost esteem in the eyes of the witnesses.
cultures generally order their social space in terms of a vertical
dimension, running from God and moral perfection above to demons,
devils and moral evil below, Haidt wrote in the American
Psychological Associations Prevention & Treatment journal
(March 2000). Garbage-eaters clearly slide down that ladder.
began to wonder about the opposite. How do people react when they
witness the actions of someone who appears to be moving up? And
why do we all care what other people do, even when it doesnt
help us? he asked.
some people perform socially positive actions for selfish reasons,
expecting reciprocity down the road, or to gain the esteem of
others. But such motives do not wholly account for someone who
jumps into a river to save a stranger, or leaves a winning lottery
ticket for a truck-stop waitress, Haidt said.
So what happens when people witness such acts? I looked
inside myself and said, Yeah, I feel something,
Haidt said. He began asking people around him even total
strangers about their feelings when witnessing moral good,
and found that they often reported similar reactions, including
that familiar warm feeling in the chest.
four years ago, Haidt began to more formally investigate those
reactions, with the goal of defining elevation. The target is
somewhat elusive; although Haidt suspects the vagus nerve is affected,
hes having a hard time finding ways to measure the getting
choked up feeling. Its hard to define any sort of
universal facial expression or body posture associated with elevation,
and there arent any animal precursors (unlike the already
defined emotions of fear and anger). The whole notion seems to
be closely allied with several other feelings, including gratitude,
admiration, awe and love.
think the main differences will be the eliciting conditions, and
then maybe the response, Haidt said.
there have been promising developments, too. In one quasi-behavioral
measurement he conducted, students who watched a document on Mother
Teresa appeared more likely to volunteer for charitable work afterward
than a different group that watched comedy or emotionally neutral
videos, he noted. Another survey confirmed that people who witness
elevating acts report similar reactions, both physically and cognitively,
including a desire to be affiliated with those whose deeds they
is particularly interesting because of its power to spread, thereby
improving entire communities, Haidt wrote in Prevention
If frequent bad deeds trigger social
disgust, cynicism, and hostility toward ones peers, then
frequent good deeds may have a type of social undoing effect,
raising the level of compassion, love and harmony in an entire
society. Efforts to promote and publicize altruism may therefore
have widespread and cost-effective results.
Elevation may have particular relevance to religion, Haidt said.
not for the emotion of elevation, the worlds religions would
be radically different, he said. The preaching and works
of Jesus and Buddha are said to have inspired people to abandon
their everyday lives and follow them, he noted. One who repeatedly
performs elevating acts can also achieve a holy status, he added.
If enough people respond, that person is a saint.
some might reasonably object to reducing emotion to a mere set
of physiological and behavioral responses, Haidt said that the
response to his work which generated national attention
after an article appeared in the Boston Globe has been
gratifying. I got back e-mails thanking me for doing this
research, because it is a deeply cherished, deeply wonderful feeling,
he said. When science helps people understand their lives,
it makes people grateful.