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See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 23, Issue 4

Childhood Memories Serve as a Moral Compass

Thoughts of innocent times prompt ethical behavior
childhood memories, moral compass



KATY LEMAY

Recalling childhood memories can lead people to behave more ethically, according to a study published in April in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

In a series of experiments done by Francesca Gino and Sreedhari Desai of Harvard University, participants were more likely to help the experimenters with an extra task, judge unethical behavior harshly and donate money to charity when they had actively remembered their childhood (as opposed to their teenage years). The effect held whether the memories were positive or negative—although, notably, the study subjects did not have traumatic histories.

These recollections seem to summon a heightened sense of moral purity. Youngsters may or may not behave especially ethically, but childhood tends to connote innocence—a frame of mind that affects behavior. “It's promising research in thinking about ways in which people are following their moral compass with very simple interventions,” Gino says. Possible applications might include posting subway signs encouraging people to remember what it was like to be a kid or decorating workplaces with stuffed animals.

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