Aug. 31-Sept. 6, 2001
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Jonathan Haidt
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Professor strives to define an emotion

By Dan Heuchert

A 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 you’ve been watching. A new inclination to participate in charitable activities.

If you feel these things, chances are that you have just witnessed something uplifting and may be experiencing the unofficial emotion of “elevation.”


Of 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.

Among 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 Association’s second annual John Templeton Positive Psychology Prize, a $100,000 award that Haidt received May 29 in Philadelphia. The award, psychology’s 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 APA.

To 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.

In 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 one’s 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.”

Haidt 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 Rozin’s 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.

Garbage-eaters lost esteem in the eyes of the witnesses.

“Human 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 Association’s Prevention & Treatment journal (March 2000). Garbage-eaters clearly slide down that ladder.

Haidt 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 doesn’t help us?” he asked.

Clearly, 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.

About 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, he’s having a hard time finding ways to measure the “getting choked up” feeling. It’s hard to define any sort of universal facial expression or body posture associated with elevation, and there aren’t 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.

“I think the main differences will be the eliciting conditions, and then maybe the response,” Haidt said.

But 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 have witnessed.

“Elevation is particularly interesting because of its power to spread, thereby improving entire communities,” Haidt wrote in Prevention & Treatment. “… If frequent bad deeds trigger social disgust, cynicism, and hostility toward one’s 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.

“If not for the emotion of elevation, the world’s 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.”

Although 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.”


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