Memory Lane and Morality: How Childhood Memories Promote Prosocial Behavior

by Francesca Gino & Sreedhari D. Desai

Overview — Little Damien from The Omen notwithstanding, we generally associate childhood with goodness, purity, and innocence. This paper investigates whether feelings of moral purity can be triggered by reminding adults of their childhoods, and whether this can help to induce kind and philanthropic behavior both in social settings and in the workplace. Research was conducted by Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino and Sreedhari D. Desai of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University. Key concepts include:

  • Through four experiments, the researchers show that triggering childhood memories induces feelings of moral purity in adults, which leads them to behave pro-socially—that is, to do kind, ethical things that benefit others.
  • Recalling childhood memories also can lead adults to judge (and punish) unethical behavior more harshly than they would have otherwise.
  • Businesses can promote positive, ethical behavior by using tasks and triggers that cause employees to hearken back to their childhoods. For example, Google, Disney, and IDEO decorate their offices with toys and colorful furniture.

Author Abstract

Four experiments demonstrated that recalling memories from one's own childhood lead people to experience feelings of moral purity and to behave prosocially. In Experiment 1, participants instructed to recall memories from their childhood were more likely to help the experimenter with a supplementary task than were participants in a control condition, and this effect was mediated by self-reported feelings of moral purity. In Experiment 2, the same manipulation increased the amount of money participants donated to a good cause, and self-reported feelings of moral purity mediated this relationship. In Experiment 3, participants who recalled childhood memories judged the ethically-questionable behavior of others more harshly, suggesting that childhood memories lead to altruistic punishment. Finally, in Experiment 4, compared to a control condition, both positively-valenced and negatively-valenced childhood memories led to higher empathic concern for a person in need, which, in turn increased intentions to help.

Paper Information