Neuroscientific and social psychological investigation on psychological effects of stories of moral exemplars

Hyemin Han
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Stanford Digital Repository

The stories of moral exemplars have been utilized in moral education to induce students to emulate the moral behavior presented by the stories. Several developmental and social psychological mechanisms, i.e., vicarious social learning, moral elevation and upward social comparison, explain why such a presentation of moral stories can promote moral motivation. However, recent social psychological studies have demonstrated that the mere presentation of moral stories, particularly those of extreme moral exemplars, may provoke negative emotional responses and weaken motivation to emulate the presented moral behavior. Thus, this dissertation uses research methods in neuroscience, developmental and social psychology to propose a more effective way to apply moral stories to educational settings while minimizing possible negative emotional and motivational outcomes. Two neuroscientific experiments identified the psychological processes involved in moral emotion and motivation, which are associated with moral inspiration induced by moral stories. Furthermore, two psychological experiments examined which type of moral stories effectively promoted moral motivation in a lab and in a school setting. The first part of this dissertation identified the neural-level mechanism of moral emotion and motivation. Study 1 meta-analyzed 43 previously published articles focusing on the neural correlates of moral functioning to illuminate the common neural foci of moral functioning in general. This study demonstrated that brain regions associated with selfhood and autobiographical self, such as the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC), posterior cingulate cortex (PCC) and other regions associated with the default mode network (DMN) and cortical midline structures (CMS), were commonly activated in moral-task conditions. Study 2 examined the role of selfhood in moral emotion and motivation by conducting a functional neuroimaging experiment. The findings from this experiment showed that the seed regions, i.e., the MPFC and PCC, associated with selfhood significantly moderated neural activity in brain regions associated with moral emotion and motivation, particularly the insula, when participants were solving moral problems. These neuroimaging experiments suggest that selfhood is significantly involved in the process of moral emotion and moral motivation, and finally may influence the effect of moral inspiration. The second part of this dissertation described psychological interventions designed to target and tweak the psychological process identified by the previous neuroscientific experiments. Study 3 compared the psychological influence of attainable and unattainable moral stories on the longitudinal change in moral motivation, which was measured by voluntary service activity engagement. This lab-level experiment demonstrated that attainable moral stories better promoted motivation among college students to engage in voluntary service activity compared to unattainable moral stories. Study 4 applied this intervention design to a school setting. This study examined whether the stories of peer exemplars better promoted moral motivation among middle schoolers than those of extraordinary exemplars did. The result of an eight-week intervention session showed that students who had discussed the moral virtue of peer exemplars were significantly more likely to engage in voluntary service activity after the end of the session compared to those who were presented with extraordinary exemplars. These results suggest that moral motivation might be effectively fostered by the utilization of attainable and relevant moral stories, such as stories of peer moral exemplars, instead of extraordinary moral stories, such as the stories of moral saints, in educational settings.

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