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Elevation and the Self Transcendent Emotions

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In my work on the moral emotions I have stumbled upon a class of emotions that is almost completely unstudied: the emotions we feel when other people do good, skillful, or admirable things. These emotions are unusual in that they are not primarily about ourselves, our goals, and our normal petty concerns. These emotions give people a sense of uplift and inspiration; they make us feel like better people; they are self-transcendent. I have focused my work on the emotion of moral elevation (a reaction to moral beauty). But I have also studied gratitude (with Sara Algoe) and awe (with Dacher Keltner).


I) My own academic articles on elevation, awe, and related emotions:


Haidt, J . (2000). The positive emotion of elevation. Prevention and Treatment, 3. Request article

--This was my first publication on moral elevation, but see #26 for a much fuller statement, and see #63 for empirical evidence.


Haidt, J. (2003). The moral emotions. In R. J. Davidson, K. R. Scherer, & H. H. Goldsmith (Eds.), Handbook of affective sciences. Oxford : Oxford University Press.(pp. 852-870). Request article

--From the abstract: "Four families of moral emotions are discussed: the other-condemning family (contempt, anger, and disgust), the self-conscious family (shame, embarrassment, and guilt), the other-suffering family (compassion), and the other-praising family (gratitude and elevation). For each emotion, the elicitors and action tendencies that make it a moral emotion are discussed."


** Haidt, J. (2003). Elevation and the positive psychology of morality. In C. L. M. Keyes & J. Haidt (Eds.) Flourishing: Positive psychology and the life well-lived. Washington DC : American Psychological Association. (pp. 275-289). View article

--This is my major theoretical statement about moral elevation. (See also chapter 9 of The Happiness Hypothesis). For empirical evidence about elevation, see Pub #63.


**Keltner, D., & Haidt, J . (2003). Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion. Cognition and Emotion, 17, 297-314. Request article

--Keltner and I were surprised to find that there was essentially no empirical work in psychology on the emotion of awe. There was almost no theoretical work either. We scoured other fields for some ideas and hypotheses about this powerful but rare emotion. We present a prototype approach to awe, and we suggest that two appraisals are central to the most prototypical cases: perceived vastness, and need for accommodation (i.e., the inability to assimilate an experience into current mental structures).


Haidt, J. & Keltner, D . (2004). Appreciation of beauty and excellence. In C. Peterson and M. E. P. Seligman (Eds.) Character strengths and virtues. Washington DC: American Psychological Association Press. pp. 537-551. Request article


Silvers, J., & Haidt, J. (2008). Moral Elevation Can Induce Lactation. Emotion, 8, 291-295. Request article
--This is one of the two most bizarre (and, i think interesting) empirical studies I've ever done (along with #37). When lactating women watched an elevating/inspiring videotape, they were more likely to leak breast milk, and more likely to pick up and suckle their infants, compared to women who watched an amusing video. We believe the mediating mechanism was the release of the hormone oxytocin.


Algoe, S., & Haidt, J., & Gable, S. (2008). Beyond reciprocity: Gratitude and relationships in everyday life. Emotion, 8, 425-429. Request article


**Haidt, J., Seder, P., & Kesebir, S. (2008). Hive Psychology, Happiness, and Public Policy. Journal of Legal Studies, 37, S133-S156 Request article
Reprinted in: : E. A. Posner & C. Sunstein (eds.) (2010) Law and Happiness. Chicago: U. of Chicago Press. pp. 133-156.
--This was my first full statement about "hive psychology", which is the idea that human beings are, like bees, products of multi-level selection. But we accomplish our hivishness in a very different way than bees: We have a variety of psychological mechanisms that make us love to lose ourselves in larger groups. Among the most important of these mechanisms is synchronous movement, which has been used in rituals and by militaries for thousands of years to bond groups together.

63 **Algoe, S., Haidt, J., (2009). Witnessing Excellence in Action: The other-praising emotions of elevation, admiration, and gratitude. Journal of Positive Psychology, 4, 105-127. Request article
--This is the major empirical article on the emotion of moral elevation.

Haidt, J., & Morris, J. P. (2009). Finding the self in self-transcendent emotions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106, 7687-7688. Request article

73 Haidt, J., & Seder, P. (2009) Admiration and Awe. Entry for the Oxford Companion to Affective Science. New York: Oxford University Press. Pp.4-5.. Request article

Vianello, M., Galliani, E. M., & Haidt, J. (2010). Elevation at work: The organizational effects of leaders’ moral excellence. Journal of Positive Psychology, 5, 390-411. Request Paper


II) Articles by other researchers on elevation (and related emotions)

Aquino, K. McFerran, B., & Laven, M. (2011). Moral identity and the experience of moral elevation in response to acts of uncommon goodness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100, 703-718. (alternate link to PDF file)

Cox, K. S. (2010). "Elevation predicts domain-specific volunteerism 3 months later." Journal of Positive Psychology 5: 333-341.

Diessner, R., Parsons, L., Solom, R., Frost, N., & Davidson, J. (in press). Engagement with beauty scale: Validation of measures of natural, artistic and moral beauty. The Journal of Psychology: Interdisciplinary and Applied. [To measure moral elevation as a personality trait, you can use the 3rd part of the Engagement with Beauty Scale (EBS), developed by Rhett Diessner, and described in this paper]

Freeman, D., Aquino, K., & McFerran, B. (2009). Overcoming Beneficiary Race as an Impediment to Charitable Donations: Social Dominance Orientation, the Experience of Moral Elevation, and Donation Behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, 72-84.

Henrich, J. & Gil-White, F. (2001) The Evolution of Prestige: freely conferred status as a mechanism for enhancing the benefits of cultural transmission. Evolution and Human Behavior, 22, 1-32.

Immordino-Yang, M., McColl, A., Damasio, H., & Damasio, A. (2009). Neural correlates of admiration and compassion. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(19), 8021-8026. [This is the first study to induce elevation in an fMRI scanner!]

Landis, S., Sherman, M. F., Piedmont, R. L., Kirkhart, M., Bike, D., & Rapp, E. (2009). Elevation and its incremental validity above and beyond the Five-Factor Model of Personality. Journal of Positive Psychology, 4(1), 71-84. 

Schnall, S., Roper, J., & Fessler, D. M. T. (2010). Elevation Leads to Altruistic Behavior. Pychological Science.


III) Papers/Articles for a general (non-academic) audience


Haidt, J. (2001). “Elevation and the revelation of our better selves.” Research News in Science and Theology, October. Request Paper


Haidt, J. (2005). “Disgust and Elevation: Opposing Sources of ‘Spiritual Information’”. In C. L. Harper, Jr. "Spiritual information": 100 perspectives. Philadelphia, PA : Templeton Foundation Press. Request Paper


Haidt, J. (2005) Wired to be Inspired. Greater Good, Spring/Summer issue. View article.


Yoffe, E. (2008) Obama in your heart. Slate, Dec. 3, 2008 (on the role of elevation in Obama's victory)


NBC Nightly News, story on how good deeds are contagious, 3/17/09


New Scientist, January 16, 2010, "Five emotions you never knew you had." By Jessica Griggs



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Last Updated August 8, 2011