The best version of yourself is always in the distant future. As if people were striving for entry into an ego utopia, they tell themselves that one day they will – for sure, I promise! – would improve. Most of the time, these are very banal goals, driven by small vanities. Of course you want to be slim, beautiful and fit, then life will finally be like a request concert at the pony farm. Others want to waste less time, be a better father, be a better mother, make more money, spend less, and so on: Wish lists have long lists, often with the same goals. Man as such, respect, gross generalization, obviously feels like a fundamentally deficient being and hopes for immediate and lasting improvement if only this one thing would change. Apparently this also applies, at least to some extent, to the realm of morality. Here, too, people dream of a better self with which they could finally lead a happy life.
Psychologists led by Jessie Sun from Washington University in St. Louis have just published a study on the preprint server PsyArXiv, which can be interpreted in this way. The scientists surveyed more than 1800 participants and asked them to provide information about their claims to the ethical self and their main motivation for change. The majority of study participants indicated that they wanted to improve moral traits. So their goal was not so much to remedy perceived deficits as to optimize existing characteristics. Most commonly, participants said they wanted to feel more compassion for others. In addition, many subjects wished to be more open, honest, productive, respectful and approachable.
Good deeds just look good
Between 40 and 48 percent of participants – two slightly different surveys were organized for the study – said they saw themselves as the main beneficiaries of their transformation into a better person. The imagined ideal self was thus dreamed up as the source of one’s own life satisfaction. At first glance, the psychologists argue, this sounds surprising: good deeds should be about others instead of the ego. According to the widespread and perhaps somewhat naïve view, anyone who helps fellow human beings acts for the benefit of others.
On the other hand, it makes people feel good when they do good – and there’s nothing wrong with that. It is better to do good out of base motivation than to do no good. Above all, people strive to maintain an image of moral integrity to the outside world. Many of the loud arguments disguised as debates, for example, can be interpreted as public competition for status, as science author Will Storr convincingly argues in his must-read book The Status Game. Roughly speaking, those who are not competing for money and the status that goes with it are instead arguing with others about who can be considered the “best person”. as “Moral Grandstanding” is what US philosophers Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke call it this form of loud ethical bragging.
This could explain why the subjects in the current study by the psychologists led by Sun (anonymously) stated that they wanted to become a morally better person primarily for their own satisfaction. Anyone who wears a halo can usually be sure of the admiration of others. And so the circle closes: the desire for external and for internal or moral beauty are similar in that both variants promise status and prestige. And that’s what everyone strives for in the end.