In his thought-provoking book, Self-Insight: Roadblocks and Detours on the Path to Knowing Thyself (Essays in Social Psychology), David Dunning describes a very interesting study that compared two classrooms of fifth graders. One class received several messages about the importance of not littering. The other class was told that it was a very neat and tidy class – the janitor told the class they were neatest class in the school, the teacher remarked on it, etc. It turns out that the second approach was much more effective in prompting the children not to litter.
Other studies, too, confirm that when people are labeled as kind and generous, they increase their pro-social behavior.
Reading this reminded me of something that civil-rights adviser Harris Wofford observed about President Kennedy, in his book Of Kennedys and Kings. Although some of his advisers urged him to take more vigorous action for civil rights, Kennedy hesitated to get too far ahead of the country; at the same time, Wofford observed: “Our best ally (and defense) was his own self-image; he saw himself as a strong President, open to criticism and prepared to give courageous moral leadership.”
I’ve been trying to figure out how to apply this observation in my own life, to help foster “pro-social behavior” in my husband and children. It’s more fun to praise than to nag, that’s for sure.
As a consequence, I’ve been making more of an effort to say things like, “You’re so independent and responsible to get dressed all by yourself this morning, right down to your shoes and socks!” “You’re so conscientious; I didn’t need to say a word about homework, you just went ahead and finished it off.” “You’re so great at finding dinner recipes that we all love — ones that are also very healthy.”
When we’re reminded of what we’re doing right, and when we realize that right action is noticed and appreciated (because practically all of us want those gold stars!), we’re encouraged to keep it up.
Have you noticed this tendency — either in yourself or in the people around you?
* Crazy fact! It turns out that Amazon keeps track every time someone highlights a passage from a book on a Kindle! Yes, if you’ve highlighted a sentence on your Kindle, Amazon knows. I find this slightly unsettling, but also very fun, because it turns out that The Happiness Project is #12 in the Most highlighted books of all time. It also shows what passages are most often highlighted, which was fascinating to me — for my own book, and for other books as well.