What would you say if I told you that simply observing people thanking others induced more altruism? The simple act of watching someone else do something uplifting or a good deed motivates us to also do good. At least that’s what researchers found in a recent demonstration of this effect at the University of Plymouth.

In two experiments, researchers (Schnall et al., 2010) tested the level of altruistic behaviors amongst female students by asking them to view TV clips of three kinds — a neutral clip showing scenes from a nature documentary, an uplifting segment from “The Oprah Winfrey Show” showing musicians thanking their mentors, or a clip from a British comedy, intended to induce mirth.

When asked if they wanted to participate in another study (in the first experiment), or if they would be willing to complete a boring questionnaire (in the second study), the subjects who watched the uplifting clip from the Oprah Winfrey Show were nearly twice as likely to agree than people who watched the neutral or funny clip.

Simply watching others do something good and uplifting encouraged more altruistic behavior.

Another study (Liljenquist et al., 2010) looked at the impact of scent on our altruistic behavior. Ninety-nine undergraduate students were individually assigned to either a clean-scented room (sprayed with Windex) or a baseline, no-scent room and were asked to work on a packet of unrelated tasks.

“Included in the packet was a flyer requesting volunteers for Habitat for Humanity, a charitable nonprofit organization. Participants reported their interest in volunteering for future Habitat efforts, specified the activities they would like to assist with, and indicated whether they wanted to donate funds to the cause,” noted the researchers. The researchers also controlled for subjects’ current mood, to rule that out as a possible explanation for their findings.

Participants in the clean-scented rooms expressed greater interest in volunteering and donating money to the charity than control participants did. Room scent had no impact on either positive or negative affect, and in analyses controlling for the participants’ current mood, room scent continued to have a significant effect on volunteerism and donation rate.

Isn’t human behavior amazing?

Limitations of the studies were that subjects were all college students, who may be different than older adults who may view the world differently (or more cynically). And since all of the subjects of the first study were female, we also can’t be sure if the first study’s findings would hold true for men.

Motivating individuals to “do good” imay be surprisingly simple and uncomplicated. Show them an uplifting TV clip in a clean-scented room, and you’ll have a group of individuals primed and ready to be altruistic.

Read the full story: Observe a Good Deed, Perform a Good Deed


Liljenquist, K., Zhong, C-B., & Galinsky, A.D. (2010). The Smell of Virtue: Clean Scents Promote Reciprocity and Charity. Psychological Science. doi:10.1177/0956797610361426

Schnall, S., Roper, J., & Fessler, D. (2010). Elevation Leads to Altruistic Behavior Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797609359882