Cute Overload: Child Power Can Lead to Adult Ethical Behavior

Article excerpt

Human resources managers rue the fact that employees spend so much time ogling daily cuteness.com and similar websites. But can those very sites be a key to promoting ethical behavior?

Bizarre as this idea may seem at first glance, my research collaborator, Francesca Gino, and I performed experiments to examine whether cute, childlike things such as animation videos and stuffed toys can bring about good behavior. Across several cultures, people have linked childhood to a state of innocence and moral purity. We reasoned that, if objects related to childhood can activate thoughts about purity, people might behave more ethically in the presence of music or colorful paint.

Think about it: people often check their behavior in the presence of children. They are less likely to swear and more likely to buy cookies to save the world. The twist in our studies comes from the fact that we used objects that hint at the idea of a child, and not real children; yet we found the same results.

In one experiment, people who watched an animated nursery rhyme cheated less on math puzzles than those in the control group. In another experiment, people who participated in a "product evaluation study" of a soft toy were less likely to deceive opponents in a deception game than those who evaluated a stylish paper clip.

Why Focus on Children?

So, why do people behave better in the presence of things that remind them of children? Our society has conditioned us to associate children with innocence. Look at how children are portrayed in literature and the fine arts.

Poets like William Blake and artists like William-Adolphe Bouguereau have used the construct of a child to symbolize moral purity and goodness. Movie companies have made millions by casting children in movies around the theme of innocent childhood.

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The association between children and moral purity is quite strong. We found that when subjects played with a soft toy or drew with colored markers they were more likely to create moral words on word-completion tasks of the sort where an incomplete word such as V_RT_ _ can be completed as VIRTUE or VORTEX.

The effect of child-related cues may possibly be more deeply ingrained than just social conditioning. Primatologists have shown that certain kinds of primates, such as the Barbary macaques, often borrow an infant from its mother in order to use it to prompt positive social interaction with others, resulting in more grooming and friendly behavior in the group.

Likewise, neuroscientists have shown that viewing images of babies, puppies, and kittens releases the "moral hormone," oxytocin, which is a key biochemical associated with feelings of sympathy. …