Experimental Science of Human Motivations and Relations


Morality is diverse but has two basic flavors—proself vs. prosocial. Most people gravitate toward prosocial varieties of morality, and accordingly identify most with ideals and values related to cooperation, kindness, care, and fairness. Proself ideals and values explicitly predominate for around 25% of people, however, and can easily be aroused in the rest of us at times. When proself morality dominates, might is right and looking out for number one is the realistic morality of the strong and successful. Competition, status, and power are the principles one should adhere to—to do otherwise would be naïve. Proself people often have an affinity for powerful groups, and see their groups as being in zero-sum competition with others’ groups. Outsiders who deviate from the dominant group can be neglected and punished without compunction because ingroup dominance is an integral part of proself morality. Perhaps ironically, proself people are often even more devoted to their ingroups than prosocial people, because proself people most appreciate the power and personal advantage that can be leveraged from cohesive ingroups. There is some evidence that anxious people are particularly drawn to this kind of proself morality and related political affiliations. Anxious circumstances similarly seem to make people and cultures become more proself and bonded to tight, consensual ingroups that are intolerant of moral dissent.

Research in our and others’ laboratories suggests that reorienting people away from proself and toward prosocial reactions to anxiety might be relatively simple. Anxious people cleave to whatever means is most salient for activating approach motivated states (see the Desire and Anxiety section on reactive approach motivation for relief from anxiety). Accordingly, we’ve found that simple reminders about their prosocial ideals can eliminate people’s usual proself reactions to anxiety and replace them with prosocial ones. 

*Note: to see in context of other research topics in our lab, click on the RESEARCH link at the top of this page.