Raising driven immoral kids?

by Jun 5, 2014Altruism, Attachment, Stress0 comments

A version of this appeared in the Telegraph, and can be accessed here 

Are results obsessed, league-table crazed state schools churning out pupils who are less moral than their posh public school counterparts, as headmaster Richard Walden recently claimed.? As so often with misconceived hyperbole, his statement contains a kernel of truth, and indeed raises fundamental questions that need answering.  After all, don’t we all want a more moral society, and to raise our kids to be well-rounded human beings who are not only caring of others, embrace and live by cultural and ethical values and are motivated by more than achievement, status and money?

Exciting psychological research has recently cast light on age-old questions such as what makes people moral, altruistic and kind. The results bear taking seriously. One constant theme is the difference between people mainly motivated by what psychologists call extrinsic rewards, such as high grades, bonuses or status symbols, which is very different to being galvanised by intrinsic values, such as caring for friends and family, or living according to ideals and cultural values [1]. Not surprisingly those who live more by intrinsic values tend to be more moral, generous and other-oriented.

This can even be seen in tiny toddlers. Studies show how they generally want to help adults who, say, drop something or need a door opening. Yet when the toddlers are rewarded for helping, maybe with a sweet or coloured toy, the rewarded ones  just don’t help the adults  on future occasions. Kids not given extrinsic rewards do however help time and time again, and they do so because they love to help [2]. They don’t of course if they are stressed, angry or very worried but do if they are relaxed and able to empathise. Interestingly, all kinds of reward circuits fire up in our brains when we help others, and mood-pleasing hormones swish around our bodies [3]. This is now so apparent that health interventions are being devised which encourage mental health patients to do a number of good deeds a day.

So what’s not to like here? We feel better when we do good, other people and society benefit and not only that, our health improves. What the ancient Greeks  called The Good Life describes a conjunction of feeling good and being good, each  feeding the other. Research shows that when we experience what is now fashionably called wellbeing we not only feel better, but we  also tend to act more generously. Indeed, researchers now distinguish two types of happiness. One is a more hedonistic kind, which might include desiring consumer goods, whether fast cars or designer clothes. Another kind of happiness is what the Greeks called eudomonic , which might include living with a deeper sense of purpose and value. Amazingly people with more hedonistic values, while insisting that they are happy, have worse health than those living a more life-enhancing Good Life. Right down to the genetic cellular level they have higher  inflammation and lower immune antibodies [4].

So what are the lessons that need to be learnt here? Firstly, results obsessed head teachers exist in a hugely competitive ‘watch your back’ society which has become increasingly materialistic and consumerist. But this of course is as true for public school educated high-flyers as state-school pupils. We now have an economic system which is harder-edged and tougher to succeed in,  and where winning has become increasingly important. Yet this gives rise to higher levels of stress and anxiety, and these emotions work against the psychological systems involved in kindness, generosity and cooperation. After all which of us is that nice when feeling overwhelming pressured and frazzled, let alone when under attack?  We evolved to be kind when we feel safe and relaxed, but to fight or flee and have little empathy when life is stressful or dangerous.

Other research shows how in recent decades  narcissism [5] has increased and empathy decreased in the West [6]. We have also learnt that with more extrinsic materialistic values we see higher levels of mental health problems as well as more self-interest. Yet the allure of conspicuous consumption is powerful. In a world where people are judged by wealth, power, status and fame, youngsters might well ask why they should  aspire to be a good or feed their  soul when they can be filthy rich or famous.

Advertising of course powerfully fuels hedonistic desires that we all harbour. Humans have biological and brain systems that are often in conflict. When feeling calm, loving and loved,  trusting and interested in other people we release a hormone called oxytocin, often dubbed  the cuddle hormone. Quite different is the hedonism-enhancing  desiring system in which another  hormone, dopamine, is central. This dopmaine system is powerfully targeted by advertising, and is the same system that is hijacked by many recreational drugs. We can all  get drawn towards the next fix, even though that new iPhone or other obsession never make us genuinely happy.

Desire is also a good, and we have evolved with powerful ones, such as for food, and sex.  We also need our children to be contenders, and be tough enough to survive in today’s world. We seem though to be living in an increasingly competitive stressful and even ruthless climate, as well as a dopamine fuelled high octane buzzy one. This is a world with less time for stillness, for mindful being with oneself and nature, for deep relationships or fulfilling cultural pursuits. This all works against The Good Life and wellbeing. After all, what we mean by having a rich life is not having material riches. Yet the strident and  beguiling allure of hedonism, power, fame  and consuming too often drown out the still small voices that we need to hold onto for our children’s physical and mental health and wellbeing.

[1]          F. Warneken and M. Tomasello, ‘Extrinsic rewards undermine altruistic tendencies in 20-month-olds.’, Developmental psychology, vol. 44, no. 6, pp. 1785–1788, 2008.

[2]          M. Tomasello, Why We Cooperate. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2009.

[3]          C. Keysers, The Empathic Brain. Social Brain Press, 2011.

[4]          B. L. Fredrickson, K. M. Grewen, K. A. Coffey, S. B. Algoe, A. M. Firestine, J. M. G. Arevalo, J. Ma, and S. W. Cole, ‘A functional genomic perspective on human well-being’, PNAS, vol. 110, no. 33, pp. 13684–13689, Jul. 2013.

[5]          J. M. Twenge and W. K. Campbell, The narcissism epidemic: Living in the age of entitlement. New York: Atria, 2009.

[6]          S. H. Konrath, E. H. O’Brien, and C. Hsing, ‘Changes in dispositional empathy in American college students over time: A meta-analysis’, Personality and Social Psychology Review, vol. 15, no. 2, pp. 180–198, 2011.





Share this Graham Music blog post

Sign up for my newsletter and occasional updates