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‘The Good Place:’ The science behind becoming a more moral person

Faking can indeed be making...

The Good Place/NBC

The question of what does it mean to be a good person? is at the root of the show The Good Place, which aired its final episode on Thursday. This is a slight spoiler, but the show handles the subject of who gets into “the good place” -- a version of heaven -- and who does not. Eventually, the characters realize that being good is a complicated mess, and sometimes, you have to learn how to be the best version of yourself.

Before this realization, however, came a hypothesis: Could a person eventually become good, if they first pretended to be good? In other words, can your morals fake ‘til they make it?

I posed that question to Johanna Peetz, an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University. Peetz is the co-author of the 2012 study, “When Does Feeling Moral Actually Make You a Better Person?”

Her research indicates that the answer is it depends. If feeling moral in the moment leads someone to regard morality as central and important to who they are as a person, then this moral identity likely leads them to act moral in the future.

But, Peetz notes, it can be a “bit of a double-edged sword.” Feeling moral in the moment can also cause someone to feel like they’ve done their good deed for the day, which might make them feel like they are allowed to act less moral in the future.

It’s also uncertain whether or not a person really can “fake it ‘til they make it.” Sometimes the answer is yes.

“If in the process of faking it, one comes to change one’s view of oneself, then the faking would indeed be ‘making’ a new identity,” she explains. “This might be the case if people who ‘fake’ a behavior realize this behavior is intrinsically rewarding, that they felt good while doing it; that there are positive outcomes for them.”

That’s what the characters on The Good Place were banking on when they originally proposed that idea -- because being good feels good, people may want that feeling more often. However (and is what happened in the show) that doesn’t work if, while faking a behavior, one’s self-view doesn’t change. If personal values don’t end up aligning with the new-you, then it’s not going to work.

The middle-ground between being good and pretending to be good is wanting to be good. In this case, studies do indicate that people can learn pro-social habits. Scientists explained in a 2019 paper published in Basic and Applied Social Psychology that an 11-day “pro-social intervention” can increase levels of empathy and social responsibility. Here, study participants got in the habit of helping others — and when the intervention was over, the habit stuck.

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