Want to persuade people to give more? Then get them “high” first — physically that is. New research published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology shows that people act twice as nice when they have just ridden up an escalator or walked up stairs. On higher ground, people’s thoughts are apparently more elevated.
Reports David Schroeder in Scientific American:
[In one experiment, researchers] found that twice as many mall shoppers who had just ridden an up escalator contributed to the Salvation Army than shoppers who had just ridden the down escalator. In a second study, participants who had been taken up a short flight of stairs to an auditorium stage to complete a series of questionnaires volunteered more than 50 percent more of their time than participants who had been led down to the orchestra pit.
The height effect doesn’t only increase charity in the sense of giving — it also increases charitable thoughts in terms of sparing pain. A third experiment was described to participants as a taste test: their task was to decide how much hot sauce to give to other tasters. Those seated on the elevated stage of an auditorium gave only half as much of the painfully hot stuff to the tasters as those who were seated far below in the sunken orchestra pit.
Why would height make such a difference? A spate of new research suggests that humans are enormously susceptible to such metaphors because of the way our brains work in the context of our bodies: that is, the thoughts and concepts in our minds are shaped by the experiences of the body. The theory is called “embodied cognition.” So, for example, giving someone a warm drink actually makes people feel and behave more “warmly” toward others, while a cold drink evokes the “cold shoulder” and promotes distant behavior.
(More on Time.com: How Things You Touch Influence the Way You Think)
From this perspective, up and down are generally related to one’s place in a given hierarchy — so up is good and down is bad. Heaven is elevated and Hell is “the pits.” We “look up to” people we admire, and “down on” those we don’t. Depression is “feeling down,” while euphoria is “being high.”
That explains why being in a higher physical position might produce more morally elevated action. But it also raises many questions: would making people feel as though they had high social status increase charity? What about using drugs to raise mood?
Chemically altered states are typically not linked with moral goodness because the high is typically seen as unearned. And, certainly, having high social status isn’t always associated with the best behavior. Nonetheless, the theory prompts a host of interesting questions and areas for further research.