Let’s say you are trying to sell cookies for a school fundraiser at the local mall, and you want to pick the ideal spot to set up your table. You’d probably look for an area with a lot of traffic. And once you’d picked your spot, you would no doubt give some thought to your pitch. A friendly hello and nice smile would set the stage nicely. Perhaps it would be a good idea to offer samples or to have friends hanging around saying nice things about the cookies or the school.

A recent Journal of Experimental Social Psychology article by Larry Sanna and his associates at the University of North Carolina suggests a more surprising factor that you might want to consider – proximity to an escalator.

Building on research showing the power of metaphors to shape our thinking, Sanna and his colleagues noted that height is often used as a metaphor for virtue: moral high ground, God on high, looking up to good people, etc. If people were primed to think about height, they wondered, might people be more virtuous?

In a series of four different studies, the authors found consistent support for their predictions. In the first study they 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.

A third study took yet another approach. Participants were to decide how much hot sauce to give to a participant purportedly taking part in a food-tasting study. Those who were up on the stage gave only half as much of the painfully hot sauce to the other person as did those who were sitting down in the orchestra pit.

In a final study, participants watched film clips of scenes taken from an airplane above the clouds, or through the window of a passenger car. Participants who had watched the clip of flying up above the clouds were 50 percent more cooperative in a computer game than those who had watched the car ride down on the ground.

Overall these studies show remarkable consistency, linking height and different prosocial behaviors -- i.e., donations, volunteering, compassion, and cooperation. While we may be inclined to think that our behaviors are the product of comprehensive thought processes, carefully weighing the pros and cons of alternatives, these results clearly show that this is not always the case.

Initial forays into understanding when and why help might be given to those in need began after the well-publicized murder of Kitty Genovese nearly 50 years ago, an attack that many people may have witnessed but did nothing to stop. That original work identified numerous situational factors that seemed to explain why help was not rendered, including important social factors related to how the presence of other people may cause people to misinterpret the situation as not being an emergency or to abdicate personal responsibility to provide the aid, even if the need for help is clear.

More recently researchers have recognized the roles played by dispositions. Personality factors may lead some people to be more prosocial than others: those who empathize with others and “feel their pain” may be more likely to get involved and offer help. Individuals with a sense of self-efficacy, that is, a belief that they can accomplish whatever they set out to do, may also be more likely to help others.

What the present research adds is that unconscious processes may also be important in determining whether we will act to help others. Sanna’s work expands a multilevel perspective of prosocial behavior by recognizing that even the most subtle of situational cues (e.g., metaphorical devices that arouse relevant unconscious thought) may make people more helpful. Perhaps understanding the impact of these myriad factors more fully will help make our world a more helpful and cooperative place to live.