This work has been scheduled to appear in Review of General Psychology (RGP)
© 2016 American Psychological Association
This article may not exactly replicate the final version published in the journal. It is not the
copy of record.
The final publication will be published 2016 in volume 20(4), soon available under:
Running Head: MORAL ELEVATION REVIEW 2
Moral Elevation and Moral Beauty: A Review of the Empirical Literature
Technische Universität Chemnitz, Germany
Lewis-Clark State College, USA
Rico Pohling, Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences, Department of Psychology,
Division of Personality Psychology and Assessment, Technische Universität Chemnitz,
Germany; Rhett Diessner, Psychology Department, Division of Social Sciences, Lewis-Clark
State College, USA
Correspondence should be addressed to Rico Pohling, Technische Universität
Chemnitz, Department of Psychology, Division of Personality Psychology and Assessment,
09107 Chemnitz; E-Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com-
Running Head: MORAL ELEVATION REVIEW 3
Moral elevation is defined as the emotional response to witnessing acts of moral beauty.
Studies have found that elevation entails pleasant feelings of warmth in the chest, feeling
uplifted, moved, and optimistic about humanity. Elevation motivates affiliation with others as
well as moral action tendencies. The main goal of this review was to gather and organize the
empirical findings from the last 16 years of elevation research with regard to psychological
and physiological characteristics, motivational tendencies, behavioral outcomes, neuronal
mechanisms, moderators, and correlates of elevation. A secondary goal was to examine
whether elevation is congruent with Fredrickson’s (2001) broaden-and-build theory of
positive emotions. It was concluded that there is strong evidence that elevation broadens the
thought-action repertoire and relatively weak evidence that it builds lasting resources.
Potential evolutionary functions, the forms of measurement of elevation, the process of how
elevation is triggered, practical applications and directions for future research were also
Keywords: elevation, other-praising, self-transcendent, positive moral emotion, morality
Running Head: MORAL ELEVATION REVIEW 4
Moral elevation and moral beauty: A review of the empirical literature
Positive Psychology is the “study of the conditions and processes that contribute to the
flourishing or optimal functioning, of people, groups and institutions” (S. L. Gable & Haidt,
2005, p. 104). Within this movement, scholars have focused on the study of positive emotions
(e.g. Emmons & Shelton, 2002; Fredrickson, 2001; Haidt, 2003b; Shiota, Thrash, Danvers, &
Dombrowski, 2014; Thrash & Elliot, 2003; Van Cappellen & Saroglou, 2012). Fredrickson
(1998) has argued that existing models of emotions built on the concept of specific action-
tendencies fail to adequately describe positive emotions. She developed the broaden-and-
build theory (BBT) of positive emotions to better explain the functions and mechanisms of
positive emotions which – in contrast to negative emotions – have been relatively neglected in
psychological research (Fredrickson, 1998).
The main purpose of this review is to gather and organize the last (and first) 16 years of
empirical studies concerning the moral emotion of elevation. For this purpose, we review
empirical findings with regard to psychological and physiological characteristics,
motivational tendencies, behavioral outcomes, neuronal mechanisms, moderators, and
correlates of elevation. Moral elevation appears to belong to the realm of positive emotions
(Haidt, 2003b). Therefore, our secondary purpose of this review is to examine whether
elevation is congruent with the framework of the BBT in regard to being a positive emotion
(cf. Fredrickson, 2001; Haidt, 2000). We will answer the question: Does elevation broaden
and build? We will then supplement the review by examining elevation’s potential
evolutionary functions, the measurement of elevation, the process of how elevation is
triggered, practical applications, and directions for future research. Research on elevation has
been growing rapidly, and our present review will likely be out of date soon. Nonetheless, we
provide here the first comprehensive review of the elevation literature.
Running Head: MORAL ELEVATION REVIEW 5
The Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotions
The BBT encompasses two main tenets or hypotheses: Firstly, it posits that positive
emotions broaden the momentary thought-action repertoire of individuals experiencing them
(the broaden hypothesis, cf. Fredrickson, Cohn, Coffey, Pek, & Finkel, 2008). This does not
mean that positive emotions necessarily activate a specific thought-action repertoire but
provide a relative breadth of thoughts and actions, an open and flexible state of mind
(Fredrickson, 1998). That is, positive emotions expand the awareness of people which
temporarily allows perceiving more contextual information in contrast to negative or neutral
states (Fredrickson, 2001, 2012). Negative emotions narrow a person's momentary thought-
action repertoire and facilitate specific, evolutionary adaptive action tendencies (Fredrickson,
1998). For instance, fear can be regarded as an evolutionary program to prepare the organism
to escape life-threating circumstances. In contrast, positive emotions are less distinct
(Fredrickson, 1998, 2001). The action-tendencies activated by positive emotions are more
vague, however, due to their hedonically pleasant and rewarding affectivity they all share the
tendency to approach and continue behavior (Fredrickson, 2001, 2000).
The broaden-hypothesis receives great support from multiple studies, some of them
providing indirect evidence for the BBT and other studies directly testing it (for supporting
evidence, see Fredrickson, 1998; Fredrickson, 2001, 2012; Rowe, Hirsh, & Anderson, 2007;
for some counter-evidence against the broaden-hypothesis, see P. A. Gable & Harmon-Jones,
2008). For instance, Fredrickson and Branigan (2005) found that video-induced contentment
and amusement broadened both the scope of visual attention in a global-local visual
processing task and the thought-action-repertoire measured using an open-ended twenty
Secondly, positive emotions share the main function of building enduring personal
resources (the build hypothesis, cf. Fredrickson, et al., 2008), which can be viewed as an
Running Head: MORAL ELEVATION REVIEW 6
evolutionary adaptive function of positive emotions (Fredrickson, 2000). Former studies have
found that positive emotions can transform the lives of people for the better by building
psychological resilience and triggering upward-spirals toward enhanced well-being, physical
health, flourishing, and personal growth (e.g. Emmons & McCullough, 2003; Fredrickson &
Joiner, 2002; Kok et al., 2013). Directly testing the build-hypothesis, one study found that
regular loving-kindness meditation over a span of nine weeks led to shifts in participant’s
daily experiences of positive emotions including love, joy, gratitude, contentment, hope,
pride, interest, amusement, and awe (Fredrickson, et al., 2008). Over the course of the nine
weeks this variety of positive emotion then produced increases in a wide range of personal
resources (e.g., increased mindfulness, purpose in life, social support, and decreased illness
symptoms). In sum, the BBT provides an alternative approach to positive emotions in contrast
to classic accounts, one that emphasizes the short and long-term positive effects these
emotions have on our individual and social functioning (Fredrickson, 2001). Hence, this
framework not only can be used to guide future emotion research but also to evaluate and
review the existent empirical findings related to specific positive emotions.
Moral Elevation – A Positive Moral Emotion
Origins of the Concept
As a distinct emotion elevation was introduced into modern psychological research by
the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in the year 2000, and elaborated on by Haidt and his
colleagues in subsequent years (e.g. Haidt, 2000, 2003a, 2003b; Haidt & Keltner, 2004; Algoe
& Haidt, 2009). Haidt (2003a) noted that Thomas Jefferson (1771/1975) mentioned the key
features of a positive moral emotion as a response to exposure to moral exemplars in literature
or the theater. Jefferson (1771/1975) himself used the term “elevate” when describing this
Running Head: MORAL ELEVATION REVIEW 7
When any ... act of charity or of gratitude, for instance, is presented either to our
sight or imagination, we are deeply impressed with its beauty and feel a strong
desire in ourselves of doing charitable and grateful acts also. On the contrary when
we see or read of any atrocious deed, we are disgusted with its deformity and
conceive an abhorrence of vice. Now every emotion of this kind is an exercise of
our virtuous dispositions; and dispositions of the mind, like limbs of the body,
acquire strength by exercise... [I ask whether] the fidelity of Nelson, and
generosity of Blandford in Marmontel do not dilate [the reader's] breast, and
elevate his sentiments as much as any similar incident which real history can
furnish? Does he not in fact feel himself a better man while reading them, and
privately covenant to copy the fair example? (p. 349-50).
However, before Jefferson’s writings on elevation, the European devotional literature
(Pasquier, 2012) – also known as devotionals; German: Erbauungsliteratur; French:
Littérature d'édification – ranging from the 14
up to the 19
century used moral elevation as
a mechanism for spiritual development. Devotionals used inspiring Bible extracts, prayers,
song texts, or biographies of holy people to inspire people and lead them along virtuous paths
(Pesti, 2009). Rooted in Christianity, it was a form of literature that was designed to be read
for daily mental and affective edification, spiritual development, and as a guideline for how to
conduct a virtuous life (Zeller, 2006). In fact, most religions have similar bodies of literature
aimed at helping their followers to desire to become better human beings and to develop
prosocial actions tendencies – the typical outcomes of the elevation experience.
Definition and Elicitors
Moral elevation is the emotional response to witnessing acts of moral beauty (e.g.
Haidt, 2000, 2003a; Algoe & Haidt, 2009; Diessner, Iyer, Smith, & Haidt, 2013; Shiota, et al.,
2014). Haidt has proposed that elicitors include acts of charity, kindness, love, compassion,
Running Head: MORAL ELEVATION REVIEW 8
forgiveness, gratitude, courage, loyalty, self-sacrifice, or any other strong display of virtue
(Haidt, 2000, 2003a, 2003b). However, it was discussed that displays of wisdom, moderation,
and perseverance do not seem to be potent elicitors of elevation (Landis et al., 2009). Further,
it has been theorized that witnessing caring moral exemplars might be the most potent elicitor
(Oliver, Ash, & Woolley, 2012). Diessner, Solom, Frost, Parsons, and Davidson (2008)
pointed out that the term moral beauty is crucial. An act may be cognitively experienced as
moral goodness but it is only experienced as an act of moral beauty if the observer feels
moved and uplifted (Diessner, et al., 2008; Guesewell & Ruch, 2012; for a review and
framework of beauty as an emotion, see Armstrong & Detweiler-Bedell, 2008).
Moral emotions can be defined by two criteria: they are linked to the welfare of other
people – either of a few or the whole of society –, and they can be triggered by elicitors that
are not related to the interests or projects of the self (Haidt, 2003b). In this regard moral
elevation is a prototypical moral emotion (see also Haidt, 2003a; Algoe & Haidt, 2009).
Emotions Related to Elevation
Prior research has demonstrated that elevation is a distinct positive emotion and not
identical or reducible to forms of happiness or positive affect (Algoe & Haidt, 2009; Aquino,
McFerran, & Laven, 2011; Strohminger, Lewis, & Meyer, 2011; Van Cappellen, Saroglou,
Iweins, Piovesana, & Fredrickson, 2013), sharing the hallmarks of a basic emotion, except for
lacking a distinct facial expression (Haidt, 2003b).
Elevation seems to be a special form of appreciation, namely for the moral actions of
others (Algoe & Haidt, 2009; Diessner, et al., 2008). It is often accompanied by and is similar
to feelings of awe and admiration (see in detail Haidt & Keltner, 2004), however, it is
different in its appraisals and components from these emotions (Algoe & Haidt, 2009; Keltner
& Haidt, 2003; Onu, Kessler, & Smith, 2016). Keltner and Haidt (2003) classified elevation
under the awe-related states sharing the feature of need for accommodation but they also
Running Head: MORAL ELEVATION REVIEW 9
underline that, unlike awe, elevation is not triggered by displays of vastness or power.
Elevation together with gratitude, awe, and admiration can be subsumed under the family of
other-praising moral emotions (Haidt, 2003b) – emotions that arise in response to observing
exemplary actions (Algoe & Haidt, 2009). Whereas elevation is elicited by moral excellence
that was not directed at one’s self, gratitude is elicited by moral excellence that benefits the
self, admiration is elicited by extraordinary displays of (non-moral) skill, talent, or
achievement, and awe is the response to something greater or something vast that is beyond
the current understanding of the self and therefore involves the need for accommodation
(Algoe & Haidt, 2009; Keltner & Haidt, 2003). Apparently, the greatest overlap might be
between gratitude and elevation (Siegel, Thomson, & Navarro, 2014), since both emotions are
triggered by deeds of moral excellence, directly motivate prosociality (Haidt, 2003b), and
even provoke similar subjective feelings (Siegel, et al., 2014). However, the specific
behavioral outcomes of these emotions are found to be different: gratitude drives the
motivation to improve and deepen the relationship with a responsive interaction partner
(Algoe, 2012), while elevation entails a more general concern to become a better human for
the sake of others (Siegel, et al., 2014).
Although elicitors of elevation may also lead to feeling inspired (e.g. Haidt, 2003a),
elevation can be distinguished from the motivational state of inspiration (cf. Algoe & Haidt,
2009; Landis, et al., 2009), a state consisting of energy, pleasure and feelings of
transcendence (for inspiration, see in detail Thrash & Elliot, 2003). However, the distinction
of elevation and inspiration needs further empirical clarification (cf. Landis, et al., 2009).
Further, Algoe and Haidt (2009) found that admiration, in contrast to elevation, energizes the
individual and thus prompts immediate action. Hence, they concluded that admiration is one
way to induce the motivational state of inspiration. Algoe and Haidt (2009) speculated that
elevation seems to be a “calmer emotion” (p. 124) that increases openness and warmth
Running Head: MORAL ELEVATION REVIEW 10
towards others but does not immediately prompt prosocial behavior although it elicits the
motivation to do so (cf. Algoe & Haidt, 2009). However, later research showed that elevation
indeed does prompt immediate prosocial behavior (see below). In particular, recent research
showed that both trait and state elevation can be labeled as an approach-oriented emotion
since both were associated with measures reflecting the behavioral activation system but not
with the behavior inhibition system (Van de Vyver & Abrams, 2016).
Moreover, elevation is often said to encompass the feeling of being moved (Haidt,
2003a). Although, at present being moved has not been recognized as an established
psychological construct (Menninghaus et al., 2015), some scholars state that elevation is
related or might even be an instance of being moved (Cova, Deonna, & Sander, 2016;
Konecni, 2005). Being moved, often characterized as a mixture of sadness and joy, refers to
an emotional state which, in contrast to elevation, can be elicited by a much broader range of
stimuli, such as critical life events (e.g. death or birth), significant relationship events, or
various aesthetic stimuli including stimuli of moral beauty (Cova, Deonna, et al., 2016;
Kuehnast, Wagner, Wassiliwizky, Jacobsen, & Menninghaus, 2014; Menninghaus, et al.,
2015). Thus, the relationship between elevation and being moved needs further theoretical
and empirical clarification.
Elevation has been conceptualized as the opposite of disgust (Haidt, 2005; Lai, Haidt, &
Nosek, 2014). While disgust is an emotional response to negative contamination (Haidt,
2003a); elevation seems to be a kind of emotional response to positive contamination, e.g.
entailing the wish to touch saints or be close to moral exemplars. Haidt (2003a) described
three dimensions of social order: solidarity (the degree of closeness to others), hierarchy (the
degree of social status or power), and divinity (with its poles of “purity” vs. “pollution"; see
also Haidt, 2006; Haidt & Algoe, 2004). On the one hand, social disgust has been suggested
to be the emotional reaction to witnessing morally atrocious deeds (Haidt, 2000) which means
Running Head: MORAL ELEVATION REVIEW 11
moving “down” the divinity dimension towards moral depravity (Haidt, 2003a). On the other
hand, elevation has been suggested to be the antipode to social disgust (Haidt, 2000; Tangney,
Stuewig, & Mashek, 2007); hence, it is the reaction to observing someone moving “up” the
divinity dimension towards spiritual and/or moral purity. Haidt (2003a) provided reports from
India and Japan indicating that the emotion of elevation is not restricted to Western cultures.
Elevation Broadens the Momentary Thought-Action Repertoire
Referring to the broaden-hypothesis of the BBT (cf. Fredrickson, 2001), we now review
studies indicating that moral elevation broadens the awareness of people by widening their
array of available thoughts and actions. We will also discuss neuroscientific findings on
elevation, some of them showing links to the broaden-hypothesis of the BBT.
Psychological and Physiological Characteristics
Psychologically, it was found that the emotional state of elevation broadens by
activating a social focus and by turning attention outwards to other people (cf. Haidt, 2003a).
It metaphorically opens our heart since it provokes pleasant feelings of expansion and warmth
in the chest (Haidt, 2003a, 2003b; Algoe & Haidt, 2009). Sometimes it provokes the feeling
of a lump in the throat, relaxed muscles, or tears in eyes (Algoe & Haidt, 2009). Morally
elevated people feel uplifted, inspired, moved, with respect for, and openness towards others
in general (Algoe & Haidt, 2009; Haidt, 2000). With regard to cognitive changes, it was
assumed (Haidt, 2003a) and found (e.g. Freeman, Aquino, & McFerran, 2009) that elevation
induces optimistic thoughts of people and humanity (for more evidence, see below in the
section on media psychology).
Elevation seems to play a role in the human affiliation system. Recent studies showed
that the physiological and neural mechanisms underlying elevation may be the same as those
associated with falling in love (cf. Carter, 2014). Silvers and Haidt (2008) provided
experimental evidence that elevation stimulates lactation of breastfeeding women which the
Running Head: MORAL ELEVATION REVIEW 12
authors took as in indirect indication that elevation had raised oxytocin levels. Oxytocin is a
correlate of trust (Kosfeld, Heinrichs, Zak, Fischbacher, & Fehr, 2005) which might explain
why people who feel elevation also feel the strong tendency for affiliation and love for others
and humanity (Diessner, et al., 2013; Janicke & Oliver, 2015). There are also some hints that
the vagus nerve may be activated during elevation which would explain why people often feel
something in their chest (cf. Hutchinson, 2012; Haidt, 2006) – a warm and wide sensation that
was already described by Thomas Jefferson (1771/1975) when he rhetorically asked, whether
well-written stories of virtuous action “do not dilate [the reader’s] breast” (p. 349-50). Recent
studies clarified that when experiencing elevation heart rate (HR) and respiratory sinus
arrhythmia (RSA) increases (Hutchinson, 2012; Lewis, 2014; Piper, Saslow, & Saturn, 2015).
Piper et al. (2015) concluded that elevation involves an uncommon combination of both
sympathetic (SNS) and parasympathetic activation (PNS), which may be designed for
situations where arousal and social engagement are both adaptive. This dual activation of SNS
and PNS is usually restricted to a set of situations which involve both nurturance and
protection (Piper, et al., 2015), as when caring for infants.
Short-term Consequences on Motivation and Behavior
Referring to its immediate motivational and behavioral consequences, elevation
motivates people to admire and emulate the observed role model, act morally, and become
more interested in relationships and affiliation. This was found in a series of studies in which
elevation, gratitude, and admiration where compared to each other (Algoe & Haidt, 2009).
Algoe and Haidt (2009) used several methods to induce these states among them recall-
techniques and video-induction.
Moreover, experimental research points to a moral empowerment effect of elevation
(Schnall & Roper, 2012). It was found that recalling prosocial affirmations before inducing
elevation led to the longest time of volunteering in a subsequent task and concluded that
Running Head: MORAL ELEVATION REVIEW 13
elevation may facilitate putting personal core moral values into action. However, it is
noteworthy that the subsequent moral behavior induced by elevation may not be reduced to
observational learning or modeling alone, since elevation appears to cause prosocial
behavioral consequences other than those exemplary actions which caused elevation in the
first place (cf. Schnall & Roper, 2012).
The rapidly growing body of empirical findings supports the aforementioned
characteristics and motivational consequences of moral elevation and documents several
behavioral outcomes. Experimentally-induced elevation has been shown to foster subsequent
prosocial/altruistic behavior, such as volunteering for an additional task (Schnall, Roper, &
Fessler, 2010; Schnall & Roper, 2012), charitable donating behavior (Aquino, et al., 2011;
Siegel, et al., 2014; Thomson & Siegel, 2013), the shaping of attitudes towards mentoring and
stimulating the wish to become a better mentor oneself (Thomson, Nakamura, Siegel, &
Csikszentmihalyi, 2014), increasing the intention to register as organ donor (Siegel, Navarro,
& Thomson, 2015), promoting the rejection of deontological violations in moral dilemmas
(Strohminger, et al., 2011), and increasing cooperative behavior in economic games (Cova et
al., 2016; Pohling, Diessner, Stacy, Woodward, & Strobel, 2016a; Sakai et al., 2016). Using a
variety of implicit and explicit measures, several studies converge on the important role of
elevation to induce a self-other-overlap and a feeling of connectedness which repeatedly have
been found to reduce prejudices and unfavorable attitudes against outgroup members, such as
straights’ view of gay men or Whites’ view of African Americans (Ash, 2014; Freeman, et al.,
2009; Lai, et al., 2014; Oliver et al., 2015). Recent experimental research (Van de Vyver &
Abrams, 2015) demonstrated that elevation affects distinct types of prosocial behaviors
compared to other moral emotions (e.g. outrage): elevation increased donation behavior
(benevolence domain), whereas outrage increased prosocial political actions (justice domain).
In another study, experimentally-induced elevation increased spirituality, in particular in non-
Running Head: MORAL ELEVATION REVIEW 14
religious participants, via altering basic world assumptions, i.e. increasing the belief in life as
meaningful and in the benevolence of others and the world (Van Cappellen, et al., 2013).
Correlates of Elevation
Moral elevation can be conceptualized and studied both as an affective state and as a
trait. Per definition, the trait or character strength of Engagement with moral beauty (EmB,
see also Diessner, et al., 2008) entails frequent and perhaps intense appreciation and awe
related to moral beauty (Diessner, et al., 2008), thus it is the disposition to experience
elevation as an emotional state (Diessner, et al., 2013). In other words, EmB can be regarded
as “trait-elevation”. Diessner et al. (2013) found that individual differences in EmB correlated
positively with two major virtues: Love (characterized by high levels in the care-foundation
of the moral foundations, high empathic concern, high agreeableness, high levels in loving all
humanity, and valuing benevolence) and Transcendence (characterized by the high levels in
the dispositions of gratitude, forgiveness, connectedness to nature, and valuing universalism
and spirituality). In another study EmB correlated positively with satisfaction with life,
spiritual transcendence, gratitude, and negatively with materialistic values (Diessner, et al.,
Further, cross-sectional research found that higher levels of self-reported trait-elevation
correlated with higher levels of self-reported Agreeableness, Extraversion, Openness to
Experience, Conscientiousness, self-transcendence, satisfaction with life, hope, vitality,
personal growth, and purpose in life, as well as with lower levels of Neuroticism and envy
(Landis, et al., 2009; Martínez-Martí, Hernández-Lloreda, & Avia, 2015). It was found to
correlate positively with dispositional righteous anger (anger when witnessing injustice
towards others), dispositional shame, and reward responsiveness of the behavioral activation
system (Van de Vyver & Abrams, 2016). Moreover, self-reported trait elevation was related
to self-reported altruistic behavior (Landis, et al., 2009; Chang, Kim, & Lee, 2015), such as
Running Head: MORAL ELEVATION REVIEW 15
the readiness to become an organ and tissue donor (Amoyal, 2014; Siegel et al., 2016). All
these findings converge on the view that not only transient states of elevation but the inter-
individual disposition, meaning an enduring lower threshold to experience moral elevation, is
related to higher levels of prosociality and well-being – personal resources moral elevation is
said to build over time (see below).
The Neuroscience of Elevation
The notion that elevation promotes connectedness with other people was demonstrated
on a neuronal level by Englander, Haidt, and Morris (2012). They observed a high degree of
inter-subject synchronization of neuronal activity – regardless of stimulus type, but most
strongly for elevation – across several brain regions during free-viewing of videos. Elevation-
inducing video material evoked significant inter-subject synchronization in brain regions
previously implicated in self-referential and interoceptive processes, including the medial
prefrontal cortex (mPFC), precuneus, and insula. Englander and colleagues (2012) underlined
that this effect represents a paradox: while elevation entails a reduction in attention to the self
(feelings of self-transcendence), it is dependent upon an increase of self-referential processes
which allows for speculation that one’s self might be modeled after, while making inferences
about, others (cf. Englander, et al., 2012; see also Piper, et al., 2015). The mPFC, a brain
region related to perceiving the mental states of others (cf. Piper, et al., 2015), seems
particularly important for elevation, since studies have repeatedly found this region to be
involved during elevation (Englander, et al., 2012; Hutchinson, 2012; Lewis, 2014; Piper, et
Immordino-Yang, McColl, Damasio and Damasio (2009) were among the first who
investigated moral elevation within a fMRI scanner. Using narratives based on true stories,
they induced admiration and elevation as well as two kinds of compassion (toward physical
vs. psychological pain). They found that these social emotions recruit brain networks involved
Running Head: MORAL ELEVATION REVIEW 16
in internal regulation and sensing the body. Further, they contrasted the conditions
elevation/compassion-for-psychological-pain with the other two and found that
elevation/compassion-for-psychological-pain was related to higher activation in the
inferior/posterior PMC (posteromedial cortices), the anterior middle cingulate and anterior
insula – all these areas are related to interoceptive processing. This elevation/compassion
condition was also related to more activity in the hypothalamus and mesencephalic reticular
formation (both homeostasis-related structures) in contrast to the admiration/compassion-for-
physical-pain condition (for a further discussion of Immordino-Yang et al.’s findings, see also
Haidt & Morris, 2009). On the background of these findings, Haidt and Morris (2009)
speculated that self-transcendent emotions seem to reuse older systems in brain – systems that
are involved in representing and managing the body.
A recent study investigated the difference between the perception of moral and facial
beauty and found that aesthetic judgments regardless of type of beauty was related to common
activation of the bilateral medial superior frontal gyrus, left inferior temporal gyrus and left
inferior orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) (Wang et al., 2015). They concluded that aesthetic
judgments rely “on the orchestration of perceptual, emotional, and cognitive components”
(Wang, et al., 2015, p. 19). Differences were found during implicit perception of beauty
(Wang, et al., 2015): Facial beauty was related to activation within the OFC and putamen,
whereas moral beauty was only related to OFC activity (see also Takahashi et al., 2008, who
found similar results: OFC activation was related to reading sentences that entailed acts of
Conclusion on the Broaden-Hypothesis
The majority of the elevation literature reviewed above indicates that elevation is
associated with an expanded awareness of thinking about, and attention to, others; and such
thinking is more flexible and open for new possibilities. Elevation directs the focus to other
Running Head: MORAL ELEVATION REVIEW 17
people which is mostly reflected by prompting prosocial intentions and behavior as well as
the wish to affiliate with others. This shows that elevation does broaden thought-action
repertoires, thus meeting one of BBT’s main criteria for a positive emotion (Fredrickson,
1998). These characteristics of elevation are underpinned by several physiological findings
showing that elevation seems to be associated with the human affiliation system and enables
individuals to connect with others, perhaps broadening their thought-action repertoire in their
Elevation Builds Lasting Resources
In terms of the build-hypothesis of the BBT, we now turn to studies indicating that
moral elevation may have long-term adaptive benefits. As the BBT posits, the broadening of
thought-action repertoires shall lead to the building of enduring personal resources which is
supposed to help the individual to deal with future adversities (cf. Fredrickson, 2001).
Long-term Effects on Moral Functioning
Repeatedly empirical studies have found that elevation induces a desire not only to
emulate the moral exemplar but to become a better person in general, to morally improve
oneself (e.g. Haidt, 2000; Algoe & Haidt, 2009). It was assumed that under the influence of
elevation people become more receptive and open to new possibilities so that they can learn
from the observed moral exemplar (Haidt, 2003a, 2003b). Therefore, elevation may represent
something like a “moral reset button in the human mind” (Haidt, 2003b, p. 864) exemplifying
a moral peak experience (Keltner & Haidt, 2003; Maslow, 1964) and starting a moral
transformation process (see Haidt, 2003a for this “inspire-and-rewire hypothesis”). Such
strong peak experiences may have an effect on people even years after they initially
experienced them (Haidt, 2000).
However, the majority of elevation literature consists of experimental (e.g. Schnall, et
al., 2010) and correlational designs (e.g. Landis, et al., 2009) that operate within a short time
Running Head: MORAL ELEVATION REVIEW 18
frame. To evaluate whether elevation meets the BBT criteria of building resources, we will
now review the few empirical studies with longer time frames.
Using a cross-lagged panel design and a heterogeneous sample, one study found that
higher levels of trait elevation (EmB) predicted increases in moral identity (measured with the
internalization dimension of the framework of Aquino & Reed, 2002) and moral behavior
(reflected by the willingness to defend norms) 17 months later while statistically controlling
for age, gender, religion, being responsibility for someone, and significant life events during
both waves (Pohling, Diessner, & Strobel, 2016). Moral identity can be regarded as an
important personal resource in the moral domain since it is associated with higher levels of
moral sensitivity, moral cognition processes, prosocial behavior, and lower levels of antisocial
behaviors, (cf. Boegershausen, Aquino, & Reed, 2015; Hertz & Krettenauer, 2016).
Another correlational study with college students investigated the effect of self-reported
elevation during a spring break service trip in Nicaragua on future volunteerism (Cox, 2010).
Controlling for pre-trip volunteerism, Extraversion, Openness to Experience, Agreeableness
and IRI-empathy, it was found that elevation predicted trip-specific volunteering two days,
one week, and three months later. However, this effect was restricted to the domain within
which elevation was induced but not with general volunteerism (Cox, 2010).
In a quasi-experimental longitudinal study using a student sample, it was demonstrated
that writing a 12-week beauty log and discussing these logs once a week – not only on moral
beauty but also natural and artistic beauty – could increase students overall level of trait-
elevation (EmB) and trait-hope (Diessner, Rust, Solom, Frost, & Parsons, 2006). Writing a
log on the moral beauty one has perceived during the week can be regarded as a recall-
technique as it is usually used in studies to induce states of elevation (e.g. Algoe & Haidt,
2009). Hence, Diessner et al. (2006) showed that frequently inducing the state of elevation
may enfold long-term effects on the dispositions to experience elevation and hope.
Running Head: MORAL ELEVATION REVIEW 19
There is also a theoretical discussion of the role of moral elevation within
religious/spiritual traditions (Haidt, 2005; Palmer, Begley, & Coe, 2013). Visual depictions of
the sacrifices of saints within Christianity (and also within other religious traditions) seem to
function as an elevation-inducing mechanism to foster prosocial behavior even over many
generations (Palmer, Begley, & Coe, 2013). Hence, Palmer et al. (2013) concluded that
elevation might have played a crucial role in the development of Christianity.
Long-term Effects on Health
The build-hypothesis of the BBT further states that positive emotions undo lingering
negative emotions, they fuel and build psychological resiliency, and trigger upward spirals
towards well-being (Fredrickson, 2001). Therefore, it is reasonable that elevation could build
emotional resources for patients suffering from severe negative emotional states which are
common in depression or anxiety disorders. Since elevation turns the attention outward to
others and promotes prosocial behavior and affiliation (Algoe & Haidt, 2009), it might reduce
excessive self-focus and impaired interpersonal functioning which is characteristic of
depression and anxiety disorders (cf. Erickson & Abelson, 2012). This is in line with
eudaimonic accounts of well-being and happiness (cf. Aristotle, 2009; Robbins, 2008) insofar
that well-being and other types of health indicators are connected to the practice of virtues –
in this case, the appreciation of moral beauty.
In a longitudinal study (Erickson & Abelson, 2012) elevation uniquely contributed to
improved interpersonal functioning and a reduction of clinical symptoms. Over ten days,
patients with depression and/or anxiety disorders completed daily surveys to assess elevation,
feelings of competence, interpersonal functioning, depressive and anxiety symptoms, and
compassionate goals. On high-elevation days, patients showed higher levels of compassionate
goals in relationships with significant others and in general, felt greater closeness toward
others, and a stronger belief in the desirability of mutual cooperation. Further, high-elevation
Running Head: MORAL ELEVATION REVIEW 20
days were associated with less dysphoria, anxiety, hostility, and social conflict. However, the
only outcome that was predicted by elevation in a six week posttest was residual increases in
compassionate goals in general relationships and in relationships with significant others. This
underpins the findings above that elevation may improve moral functioning in the long run.
A quasi-experimental study with undergraduate students found no difference between
the intervention group biweekly logging reflections on natural, artistic, and moral beauty for
10 weeks and two comparison groups logging nothing (Diessner, Brink, & Rust, 2010). The
intervention group significantly increased their level of engagement with beauty; however no
group changed in level of depressive symptoms. Another study with adults applied a beauty
log approach similar to the one of Diessner et al. (2006; 2010), but only for seven consecutive
days, and found effects on happiness and depressive symptoms. The intervention group in
contrast to a placebo control group (reflecting on early childhood memories) showed
increases in happiness one week and one month later as well as a decrease in depressive
symptoms one week after the intervention (Proyer, Gander, Wellenzohn, & Ruch, 2016).
Evolution and Elevation
From an evolutionary perspective, moral elevation may have adaptive functions (Shiota,
et al., 2014). “Emotions … serve survival and reproductive functions that are best understood
at four levels simultaneously – intra-individual, dyadic, group, and cultural” (Keltner, Haidt,
& Shiota, 2006, p. 116). On the individual and dyadic level, elevation can be understood as
the response to observing a moral agent who practiced a virtue towards another person or a
group (Rudolph & Tscharaktschiew, 2014). Thus, elevation signals the presence of a possible
altruist, a good candidate for cooperation which reduces the chance to be cheated or exploited
by others (Haidt, 2000; Shiota, et al., 2014). Elevation possibly serves as an affective moral
barometer for identifying trustworthy and cooperative people. This may facilitate building
reliable cooperation alliances, even with non-kin.
Running Head: MORAL ELEVATION REVIEW 21
Another account to explain the evolution of moral elevation on an individual/dyadic
level is based on kin selection theory (Hamilton, 1964). The so called descendant-leaving
strategy (DLS, Palmer, Begley, Coe, & Steadman, 2013; Palmer, Begley, & Coe, 2013) states
that elevation was favored by natural selection since it enhanced the ability of ancestors to
foster altruism among their descendants. “Perhaps ... moral elevation started with an
individual who witnessed an altruistic behavior toward it by its parent, and who had a
mutation inﬂuencing it to respond by directing altruism toward his or her sibling and/or
toward his or her own offspring later in life” (Palmer, Begley, & Coe, 2013, p. 116). Such
altruism then can spread from generation to generation by means of stories or rituals related to
the original altruistic act. In sum, this account tries to explain how selfless sacrifice and
stories related to such acts have evolved together with moral elevation to manipulate distant
co-descendants in future generations by increasing their willingness to sacrifice themselves
for each other.
The problem with the aforementioned individual level evolutionary accounts is that the
altruistic behavior elicited by elevation is not solely directed towards the original moral agent
whose behavior induced the elevated state but also towards other people, even to non-kin. The
DLS tries to solve this problem by emphasizing that elevation initially has evolved within a
social environment that mainly consisted of kin; today the social environment is much
different but the original tendency of elevation to spread altruism to people surrounding us is
still intact. However, some scholars call the validity of inclusive fitness theories into question
(Nowak, Tarnita, & Wilson, 2010) and, moreover, multilevel selection theories have been
revived to explain group-related behavior (although multilevel selection has been
controversial, see Wilson & Wilson, 2007; Wilson, Van Vugt, & O'Gorman, 2008; and Haidt,
2012, for the case that humanity's religious and tribal nature provide exactly the contexts in
which group level selection models begin to work well).
Running Head: MORAL ELEVATION REVIEW 22
From a multilevel selection perspective (including groups and culture) moral elevation
may be beneficial since it encourages people to emulate observed virtues and causes them to
produce similar virtuous behaviors. In doing so, it is beneficial for the group to which the
elevated person belongs. The so called hive hypothesis (Haidt, Seder, & Kesebir, 2008) states
that “human beings are conditional hive creatures” (Haidt, 2012, p. 258). Implied in this
assumption is the notion that human beings have the ability to temporarily transcend self-
interest and become part of something bigger than themselves in order to make groups more
cohesive and more successful in competing with other groups (Haidt, 2012). As the empirical
findings reviewed above show, elevation, as well as the emotion awe, may therefore be
interpreted as a hive switch (Haidt, 2012) activating our hive-nature and thus making us more
selfless. Elevation appears to lead to transcending the self – psychologically, physiologically,
and behaviorally. It therefore may help to connect with each other, to temporarily overcome
our selfishness, and perhaps to move toward changing ourselves thus inducing an upward
spiral of positive change, not only for the individual who experiences it, but for a whole
community (Haidt, 2000; Keltner, Kogan, Piff, & Saturn, 2014). Elevation therefore might
build group-related resources in the sense that it motivates group-members to serve the
common goal of the group or even sacrifice themselves for it.
One study found initial evidence that self-sacrifice in the form of suicide bombing can
in fact cause moral elevation within members of the same cultural group (Hasan, 2002). Using
recall-approach within a structured interview, the study investigated different situations
(“good deed”, “self-sacrifice”, “rescue”, and “achievement”) and its affective reaction in a
small sample of 36 American Palestinians during a period of heavy suicide bombing in Israel.
The interview was followed by a discussion on suicide bombing with each participant. The
results exemplify that elevation may indeed foster a desire to become like a martyr in certain
societies. It may have the power to inspire an entire community to sacrifice themselves for the
Running Head: MORAL ELEVATION REVIEW 23
common cause (cf. Hasan, 2002), even if the goals and norms behind that self-sacrifice are
considered immoral by other groups. Thus, the commitment to a specific belief system seems
to be a crucial factor that determines which behaviors are seen as moral (see also Graham et
al., 2013) and have the power to elicit moral elevation. However, further studies are needed
on this highly provocative topic.
Conclusion on the Build-Hypothesis
The body of evidence that indicates elevation meets the second criteria of the BBT,
building lasting resources, is much smaller than for the broaden aspect. Nevertheless, the
aforementioned studies demonstrate that elevation may build lasting personal resources since
it leads to higher levels of moral identity and to a greater tendency to show various kinds of
moral behavior. However, except for one study showing moderately long-term improvements
in happiness and depressive symptoms, we found no evidence that elevation longitudinally
builds other types of resources such as improved health (although correlations of elevation
with well-being indicators repeatedly were found in cross-sectional research, see above).
Table 1 summarizes the components of elevation which have been found across studies.
Understanding the Conditions for and Processes of Elevation
Antecedents and Moderators of Elevation
Repeatedly, women have been found to be more easily moved by displays of moral
beauty than men (Amoyal, 2014; Freeman, et al., 2009; Haidt & Keltner, 2004; Janicke &
Oliver, 2015; Landis, et al., 2009; Pohling, Diessner, et al., 2016a). Further, younger people
seemed to be more susceptible to experimentally-induced elevation (Pohling, Diessner, et al.,
2016a). Diessner et al. (2013) provided evidence that the trait EmB moderated how strongly
people felt elevated after watching an elevation-inducing video. In addition, high trait EmB
was related to higher state-elevation ratings independent of experimental emotion induction
(Pohling, Diessner, et al., 2016a). The same study found that EmB and Need for Cognition
Running Head: MORAL ELEVATION REVIEW 24
(NFC) moderated the behavioral effects of video-induced elevation: individuals scoring high
on EmB or high on NFC donated more money to a recipient in dictator game in the elevating
video condition compared to a humorous video condition (Pohling, Diessner, et al., 2016a).
Experimental research has found moral identity to be a moderator for elevation; that is,
people high in chronically or temporally activated schemas of moral identity were more able
to experience the state of elevation or recall acts of moral goodness than people whose moral
identity was low (Aquino, et al., 2011; Lai, et al., 2014). Corroborating these findings, a
recent study of 45 adolescent male participants found that patients being in treatment for
serious antisocial behavior and substance problems showed significantly lower elevation
scores in response to watching an elevating video clip in contrast to a control non-patient
group (Sakai, et al., 2016). In particular, the lowest elevation response was found for those
patients who simultaneously scored high on callous unemotional traits operationalized by the
DSM-5’s with limited prosocial emotions specifier.
Cameron and Fredrickson (2015) investigated the relationship between mindfulness –
with its two facets of present-focused attention and nonjudgmental acceptance – and self-
reported real-world helping behavior using a cross-sectional design. Present-focused attention
predicted increased moral elevation during self-reported helping, together with other moral
emotions like love/closeness and joy.
Positive psychology states that different motives lead along different routes to happiness
and well-being, i.e. the pleasant, the engaged, and the meaningful life (cf. Seligman, Parks, &
Steen, 2004) – the engaged life finds happiness through eudaimonia – the motivational pursuit
of virtue, personal growth, excellence, and meaning (Huta, 2013). In a series of four studies,
Huta and Ryan (2010) found that eudaimonia was related to elevating experiences. The
correlation was stronger than the correlation of hedonia with elevating experience. Their
fourth study used an experimental manipulation carried out for ten consecutive days in which
Running Head: MORAL ELEVATION REVIEW 25
participants were instructed to add at least one hedonic or eudaimonic (depending on the
experimental conditions) activity beyond what they usually do. Engaging in eudaimonic
activities (the list of possible activities mostly included prosocial activities but also activities
related to values, meaning, or spirituality) increased the occurrence of elevating experiences
in a 3-month follow-up, but did not do so immediately after the intervention was completed.
Consequently, eudaimonic motives and activities seem to increase the capacity to experience
elevation slowly over time.
Elevation processes were investigated in detail by systematically varying the
characteristics of elevation-inducing stories by Thomson and Siegel (2013). In an
experimental study they manipulated (a) the character of the recipient of help (good character
vs. bad) and (b) the perceived effort needed to complete the moral act done by the moral
exemplar (high effort vs. low). Being exposed to a moral story where the character of the
recipient was good was related to increased states of elevation and subsequent donation
behavior in contrast to stories where the recipient’s character was bad. The perceived effort
did not influence elevation but did influence its behavioral consequences: Reading about
moral exemplars who needed substantial effort to complete a moral act caused higher
amounts of donation behavior than among those who read about a similar act demonstrating
less effort. In fact, the morality of the recipient seems to be a crucial condition for the
behavioral effects of elevation. In another study, it was found that the morality of the
beneﬁciary impacted donation behavior more strongly in elevated participants than those
feeling grateful (Siegel, et al., 2014).
The aforementioned studies used forced-exposure paradigms when inducing elevation
by means of video content. However, there is evidence that the perceived choice to watch an
elevating video heightens the probability to show prosocial behavior afterwards (Ellithorpe,
Running Head: MORAL ELEVATION REVIEW 26
Ewoldsen, & Oliver, 2015). Interestingly, the same study found that prosocial behavior
declined in a subsequent task in the elevation condition. That is, under specific circumstances,
the prosocial action tendencies elicited by elevation can diminish quickly once participants
fulfilled their goal to be a better person.
Another study clarified that elevation is not restricted to observing individual moral
exemplary behavior. Romani and Grappi (2014) found that organizational corporate social
responsibility (CSR) activities have the power to elicit elevation within customers.
Moral elevation may not be the sole emotional reaction to perceiving moral excellence.
It is possible that comparing oneself with a moral exemplar can become a threat to the self
(Monin, 2007; Monin, Sawyer, & Marquez, 2008) and lead to feelings of moral inferiority,
moral confusion about the rightness of one’s own behavior, or anticipated moral reproach (see
in detail Monin, 2007). However this remains an open empirical question.
Research Methodologies and Elevation
To conduct and evaluate elevation interventions, researchers need reliable and valid
methods to induce and measure elevation. However, the methodology across studies is quite
diverse. This might be the most important critique of the elevation literature (for a website
where researchers can post and discuss measures of elevation, see also
For inducing the emotional state of elevation researchers have used recall-techniques
(e.g. Haidt, 2000; Van Cappellen, et al., 2013), videos displaying a moral exemplar in action
(e.g. Algoe & Haidt, 2009; Diessner, et al., 2013; Schnall, et al., 2010; Schnall & Roper,
2012), the reading of moral stories (e.g. Freeman, et al., 2009; Thomson, et al., 2014), or the
creation of participants’ own moral stories (e.g. Thomson & Siegel, 2013).
To assess elevation, some studies use one or two single items for each component of
elevation (e.g. Diessner, et al., 2013; Schnall, et al., 2010; Strohminger, et al., 2011). Others
Running Head: MORAL ELEVATION REVIEW 27
have used item batteries for the components, like Aquino et al.’s (2011) 15-item scale that
operationalizes “desire to be a better person” with 6 items, “views of humanity” with 5 items,
and “elevating emotions” with 4 items (p. 706) or the 20-item scale of Thomson and Siegel
(2013), which is a mixture of various instruments. Further, Thomson and Siegel (2013)
created a new approach to measure elevation using a semantic differential with the poles
elevation vs. disgust, which showed concurrent validity with other elevation measures.
Note that the measured components of elevation – affective reactions, elevating
cognitions, physical sensations, and motivational tendencies (cf. Table 1) – vary across
studies; different studies concentrate on different aspects of elevation. Consequently, there is
a need for a gold-standard to adequately measure the state of elevation, a conceptually well-
designed, reliable, and validated measure for future research. Although a variety of
approaches has its own merits (i.e., diversity), without a unified measure, we run the risk of
research being inconsistent, disparate, and the findings across studies are and will be difficult
to compare. Once a well-designed standard instrument for measuring the state of moral
elevation is available, it would also be possible to compare the various techniques of inducing
elevation in terms of their ability to induce the same quality and intensity of elevation.
For measuring moral elevation as personality trait, one such a well-established and
validated measure is available – the Engagement with Beauty Scale (EBS) with its subscale
Engagement with moral beauty (EmB; Diessner, et al., 2008; for empirical findings on EmB,
please see above or see Pohling, Diessner, Stacy, Woodward, & Strobel, 2016b). The EBS has
shown satisfactory psychometric properties (Diessner, et al., 2008; Pohling, Diessner, et al.,
2016b) and has been translated into Cantonese, Croatian, Cypriot Greek, Farsi, German,
Japanese, Russian, and Slovenian. There also is an unpublished trait elevation measure
initially developed by Haidt that was used in a few studies (e.g. Landis, et al., 2009). In
Running Head: MORAL ELEVATION REVIEW 28
addition, Chinese scholars recently developed a Chinese moral elevation scale (Ding, Wang,
Sun, & Li, 2014).
Practical Implications: Using Elevation to Foster Human Flourishing
Firstly, as explained above, accumulating states of elevation seems to be morally
healthy and build emotional resources which may help to overcome suffering caused by
mental disorders. Therefore, strategies for inducing and enhancing elevation could be used as
positive psychotherapeutic interventions (cf. Seligman, Rashid, & Parks, 2006). However the
direct therapeutic effect of a single elevation experience seems to be short-lived (perhaps a
few minutes), so elevation may be most useful for creating openings in psychotherapy or
marriage therapy – brief therapeutic windows of self-transcendence in which people are more
open and loving, and less petty. Furthermore, to accumulate states of elevation and to build
lasting resources, therapists could teach techniques, such as beauty logs or letter writing
techniques, so that patients learn to induce elevation within themselves on a daily basis (for
evidence on the therapeutic effects of elevation on health, see above).
Secondly, elevation-inducing strategies could become effective organizational
interventions for starting positive change and for promoting moral behavior throughout an
organization (Schnall & Cannon, 2012). For example, in one study it was found that when
leaders showed self-sacrifice for the organization and demonstrated fair behavior toward
employees, this resulted in feelings of moral elevation in their subordinates, which in turn led
to greater affective commitment to the organization and to more organizational citizenship
behavior of the subordinates (Vianello, Galliani, & Haidt, 2010). In another experimental
study, moral elevation was found to be a mediator between transformational leadership and
prosocial behavior measured as donation behavior (Perlmutter, 2012). It appears that
employees pay a great deal of attention to the moral behavior of their superiors and respond in
a prosocial way to their displays of moral excellence. These results underpin the crucial role
Running Head: MORAL ELEVATION REVIEW 29
of leaders as moral role models in organizations for inspiring their subordinates via inducing
However, the positive effects of elevation are not limited to its effect within
organizations. Recent experimental studies converge on the important role of elevation as a
mediator between corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities of organizations and
consumer stakeholder’s responses. Elevation was found to mediate between the effect of a
company’s decision not to offshore and the improvement of consumers’ attitudes towards that
company (Grappi, Romani, & Bagozzi, 2013); between the effect of CSR activities towards
the local community and consumer reactions measured as donation and volunteering behavior
(Romani & Grappi, 2014); and between customers’ perceived intrinsic (moral) motives of the
company to conduct CSR and favorable consumer behavioral responses (Romani, Grappi, &
Bagozzi, 2014). These responses were then related to positive consumer support of other
green products of the company (Romani, et al., 2014).
Thirdly, new emotions-focused pedagogical interventions, fostering engagement with
moral beauty and the experience of elevation in daily life, could be designed to foster
students’ moral development (Chu, 2014). As cited above, quasi-experimental research
demonstrated that writing a 12-week log on moral, natural, and artistic beauty could increase
trait-elevation (EmB) and trait-hope (Diessner, et al., 2006). In fact, research and theory point
to the fact that prosocial behavior is also related to the appreciation of natural beauty
(Diessner, et al., 2013; Diessner, 2007; Diessner, et al., 2006; Zhang, Piff, Iyer, Koleva, &
Keltner, 2014). Perhaps appreciating beauty in general provides the ground to experience
positive emotions like awe or, in the moral domain, elevation. These positive emotions in turn
may then lead to a decentering of the self, a shift of the perspective away from the self and
toward others (Zhang, et al., 2014). Another study showed that states of elevation can be
increased by an 10-week intervention that was embedded into a 16-week undergraduate
Running Head: MORAL ELEVATION REVIEW 30
college course on the psychology of beauty (Diessner, Kirk, Guenthner, Pohling, &
Mobasher, in press). Dyads of students were instructed to focus on discovering the signature
virtues, and thus the moral beauty, of an elder in their local community during ten 75 minute
weekly visits to an elder in their local community. The results demonstrated increases in the
state level of elevation after each visit but showed no changes in trait-elevation at the end of
the course (Diessner, et al., in press). Hence, theory and empirical results suggest that
educating for the appreciation of beauty is possible (see also Martínez-Martí, Avia, &
Hernández-Lloreda, 2014) and could become an integral part of moral education.
Fourthly, elevation might be applied in media psychology to promote the view of a kind
world in media content and in their viewers (Oliver, Ash, et al., 2012), and to reduce
prejudices and discriminatory behavior towards outgroup members (cf. Ash, 2014).
Movies that entail outstanding acts of human virtue have been found to heighten a
sense of shared human goodness and self-humanity overlap which, in turn, lead to an
increase of explicit favorable attitudes towards outgroup members (Niemiec &
Wedding, 2014; Oliver, et al., 2015). Also, such meaningful media may inspire the
audience to contemplate life’s deeper purpose (Oliver & Bartsch, 2011). Oliver,
Hartmann, and Woolley (2012) found that movies denoted by participants as
meaningful featured more moral excellence. Participants rated altruistic values shown
in these meaningful films as more important compared to the pleasurable-film
condition. These altruistic values or “portrayals of moral virtue” (Oliver, Hartmann, et
al., 2012, p. 373) were, in turn, associated with reporting higher levels of moral
elevation and the desire to be a more moral person in the future (see also Erickson &
Abelson, 2012, who reported similar findings from an unpublished study within their
discussion section). It has also been found that meaningful media can induce feelings
of connectedness (i.e. towards family, towards close others, towards a higher power)
Running Head: MORAL ELEVATION REVIEW 31
and compassionate love (towards close others and towards all humanity/strangers,
Janicke & Oliver, 2015). Hence, elevating media content could be used as a means to
spread a sense of connectedness within the whole society. Janicke and Oliver (2015)
concluded that “feeling elevation ultimately makes us realize the interconnectedness
between humanity and brings out the compassionate love we feel toward humanity
including a motivation to help even strangers” (p. 11).
Future Elevation Research
In sum, the science of moral elevation has just started and many questions remain
unanswered. Future research should address the following questions:
1) Questions related to elevation’s role in building enduring resources: As this review
showed the resource building function of elevation must be underpinned by more studies
since the current evidence is quite thin. For instance, one could investigate the building of
further types of resources. The BBT assumes that positive emotions also create intellectual
resources (e.g. by improving learning) and social resources (e.g. improved relationships, cf.
Fredrickson, 1998) which may be applicable to elevation and worth exploring. In particular,
we need more longitudinal studies to test the hypothesis that elevation initiates a long-term
moral transformation process (cf. Haidt, 2000).
2) Cross-cultural questions: Various cultures endorse various foundations of morality
differently (cf. Graham, et al., 2013). Yet, intercultural research on elevation is still scarce.
Therefore, future research should explore cultural differences in the proneness for
experiencing moral elevation in response to elicitors associated with specific virtues. Such
research would investigate which virtues cross-culturally represent the strongest triggers for
3) Process questions: Research should further clarify how the process of elevation
functions (physiologically as well as psychologically) and further distinguish elevation from
Running Head: MORAL ELEVATION REVIEW 32
related constructs. As Landis et al. (2009) called for, we need more studies that clarify the
distinction between elevation and the motivational state of inspiration. With respect to the
psychological mechanisms that influence the elicitation of elevation, more research on
situational features is needed. The construct moral intensity (Jones, 1991) with its six moral
issue-cues (proximity, social consensus, magnitude of consequences, probability of effect,
temporal immediacy, concentration of effect) could be useful. These issue-cues have been
found to have an impact on all four components of ethical decision-making: from moral
sensitivity to moral behavior (May & Pauli, 2002; Jones, 1991). Hence, situations with high
moral intensity may elicit higher levels of moral elevation.
4) Elevation and ethical-decision making: Elevation directly shapes the motivation to
act morally and could therefore be subsumed under the process-components of moral
motivation within Rest’s four-component model (Rest, 1986). Future research should
investigate how elevation is related to the other components of the model, such as moral
judgment and moral sensitivity. Moral sensitivity is the ability to recognize how courses of
actions impact the welfare of others (Jordan, 2007); so one intuitive assumption may be that
moral sensitivity is an essential prerequisite for experiencing elevation. Further, a study by
Diessner, Davis, and Toney (2009) found no relationship between EmB and moral judgment
as measured with the Defining Issue Test 2 (Bebeau & Thoma, 2003) but more research on
the interconnections between moral reasoning and elevation is needed.
5) The moderating role of personality: More research is needed on moderators of moral
elevation, in particular which personal characteristics increase or decrease the susceptibility to
elevation and its behavioral consequences. Which personality variables and/or abilities must a
person have to experience moral elevation?
6) Methodological questions: New assessment tools are needed; we need a gold-
standard to measure elevation as an emotional state. Future research should also emphasize
Running Head: MORAL ELEVATION REVIEW 33
studies in naturalistic environments using quasi-experimental designs to ensure
ecological/external validity of the findings; so far most of elevation studies have been
conducted in labs which ensure high experimental control but limits the authenticity of these
studies. With regard to therapeutic applications, new methods to induce elevation could be
designed. Possibly, daily experiences of elevation induced via meditation-techniques could
boost the long-term therapeutic effects of elevation found by previous studies.
In sum, research on moral elevation is a young but rapidly growing field and many
questions still need to be addressed. Nonetheless, we were able to achieve our secondary goal
in this review: there is strong evidence that elevation does broaden thought-action repertoires
and some evidence that it builds resources. Moral elevation is a positive moral emotion that
fits fairly well into the broaden-and-build theory (cf. Fredrickson, 2001; Haidt, 2000) since it
causes changes in the thought-action repertoire by inducing pleasant affective states that make
people feel connected to each other, by triggering optimistic views about people and
humanity, and by prompting immediate prosocial motivation and behavior. Further, elevation
may create personal resources by triggering (possibly) long-term positive changes in
individual’s moral functioning and well-being; specifically higher levels of moral identity
internalization, compassionate goals towards others, and happiness. However, empirical
evidence that elevation creates other types of resources, such as improved relationships,
improved health, or group-related functioning, has not been demonstrated.
Through understanding this emotion, we may not only better understand human
morality but we may also be able to apply this understanding of elevation for improving our
lives and the societies in which we live in. Although modern psychology has only recently
begun to explicate this emotion, humanity has likely been experiencing it for eons. Two
Running Head: MORAL ELEVATION REVIEW 34
thousand four hundred years ago Plato noted the outcome of being elevated by higher forms
of moral beauty and their connection to living a life of virtue:
“’This, my dear Socrates,’ said the stranger of Mantineia, ‘is that life above all others
which man should live, in the contemplation of beauty absolute; …But what if man had eyes
to see the true beauty-the divine beauty…Remember how in that communion only, beholding
beauty with the eye of the mind, he will be enabled to bring forth, not images of beauty, but
realities (for he has hold not of an image but of a reality), and bringing forth and nourishing
true virtue…’” (Plato, 1937, 210a-211e).
Running Head: MORAL ELEVATION REVIEW 35
The authors cordially thank Jonathan Haidt for helpful comments on an earlier draft of
the manuscript. We also thank Markus Rehnert for information exchange about devotional
Running Head: MORAL ELEVATION REVIEW 36
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Running Head: MORAL ELEVATION REVIEW 52
Core Components of Moral Elevation Found Across Studies
Elicitor Moral beauty of others, i.e. displays of virtuous acts
Physical sensations Warmth in chest, muscles relaxed, eyes moistened or
filled with tears, sometimes a lump in the throat
Affective reactions Positive and pleasant feeling, uplifted, moved, inspired,
respect, feelings similar to some forms of awe and
Cognitive reactions Optimistic thoughts about people and humanity
Motivational tendencies Do something good for others, emulate the moral role
model, become a better person, put personal moral
values into action
Relationship consequences Openness to others in general, turn attention towards to
other people, tendency to affiliate with others
Long-term effects Moral transformation, i.e. upward spiral toward
better/higher human nature