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Priming emotion concepts and helping behavior: how unlived emotions can influence action.

Empirical evidence regarding the consequences of affective states is devoted mainly to positive versus negative affect. Affect refers to: (a) moods, that is, diffuse and enduring states that have no salient cause, and (b) discrete emotions, that is, conscious affective states that have a salient cause and a prototypical, cognitive content (Forgas, Wyland, & Laham, 2006). Numerous studies have been conducted in which the influence of good versus bad mood, on memory, judgment, persuasion, prosocial, or antisocial behavior have been investigated. Conversely, studies in which evidence is presented for the consequences of distinct emotions are scarce and, in addition, mostly dedicated to the study of negative emotions.

The effects of mood on helping is complex and controversial because both good moods and bad moods have been found to be linked to helping behavior. Individuals engage in helping others in order to maintain their good mood, or to repair their bad mood. Happy people believe that a failure to give assistance would lessen their current state and, concurrently, that making someone else happy would help maintain their own happy state. Further, Isen, Shalker, Clark, and Karp (1978) suggested that persons in a good mood tend to have positive thoughts and evaluations of their ongoing experiences. Therefore, they may evaluate more favorably a request for help, especially the cost of helping.

Studies in which positive affect and helping behavior have been explored are restricted to positive moods, or happy feelings. However, in a recent set of studies (Fischer-Lokou, Lamy, & Gueguen, 2009; Lamy, Fischer-Lokou, & Gueguen, 2008, 2009, 2010) we investigated the effects of the semantic priming of love on helping behavior. In the context of a survey conducted for a (fictitious) journal called Love and Feelings, passersby who were asked to retrieve the memory of a love episode proved more helpful, compared with a control condition, to a confederate asking for money to take the bus. Moreover, the group who had retrieved the memory of love agreed to help more frequently and spent more time giving directions to a confederate who pretended he was lost. Passersby primed with the cognition of love also gave help spontaneously to a confederate who had lost a stack of compact discs. Such effects have also been observed when the participant is unaware that love is being primed. When asked for the direction of Valentine Street by a female confederate and later asked for help by the same woman, who pretended a group of four disreputable-looking confederates had taken her mobile telephone, primed participants were more helpful than those in a control group. All these effects were typically found when the requester was female and the helper was male, that is, in the situation of chivalrous helping.

Overall, there is no evidence that the behavioral effects of love priming are unique, nor of whether or not these effects occur with any other emotion concept. It is also unclear whether these effects occur because of the valence of love, because of the arousal it implies, or because of specific motivational or cognitive components. We designed the present study to create a situation in which love was contrasted with other concepts. We devised two experimental conditions where emotional concepts (love and distress) were semantically induced, and one control condition where a nonemotional concept (solidarity) was semantically induced. Talarico, Berntsen, and Rubin (2009) considered love as a positive, highly arousing emotion. We reasoned that love is characterized by mostly positive valence and high arousal (emotional intensity). In addition to love, we included distress, usually defined as people showing support for each other, or being united by interests, purposes, or sympathies. The concept of solidarity is: (a) cognitive (belonging to the same group and having shared interests; (b) affective (sympathy); and (c) motivational (being prone to helping others). If romantic love can be defined as love for one person, solidarity may be defined as love for a group. However, in line with previous research in which solidarity has been excluded from lists of emotional states, we considered this concept as mainly nonemotional. Therefore, in the present investigation, we predicted that, despite its strong, helping-oriented, cognitive component, solidarity would induce in participants weaker behavioral effects than would a highly emotional concept such as love. Furthermore, we predicted that the strong, negative valence of distress would induce in participants an avoidant behavior and, thus, less helpfulness than would love or solidarity priming.



The sample comprised 227 passersby (90 women and 137 men) whose estimated ages ranged from 18 to 75 years. The sample sizes across experimental and control conditions were unequal because incomplete data were deleted. Confederates were not professional interviewers and they sometimes forgot to note a participant's age or gender.


In order to determine the valence and the degree of arousal induced by the three words that were used in this experiment, a pilot study was performed. Adult passersby (60 women and 60 men) were asked to estimate to what extent the word love (or distress or solidarity) is positive or negative. We used a 7-point scale with anchors of -3 (very negative) and +3 (very positive). The order of the three words was randomized. A main effect of the gender of the passerby was found: F(1, 118) = 7.41, p < .001. Post hoc tests (Fisher LSD tests) showed that compared with female participants, male participants gave a less positively valenced evaluation of love (p = .01) and solidarity (p < .01), and a less negatively valenced evaluation of distress (p = .01). Thus, women appeared to give more emotionally intense evaluations. Moreover, the evaluations of love and solidarity were not significantly different for men and women, but both these evaluations differed from the evaluation of distress (p < .001 in each case). Love (M = 1.70 for male participants vs. M = 2.20 for female participants) and solidarity (M = 1.48 vs. M = 2.10, respectively) were associated with positive valence, whereas distress was associated with negative valence (M = -1.33 vs. M = - 1.86, respectively).

Our experiment took place on Boulevard Haussmann one of the main arterial routes of Paris. This street is located in a very busy business district. We point out that our study was not conducted as a simulation. Money was requested from passersby in order to realize a project to help hospitalized children and the funds collected were used to buy toys and finance leisure activities for children hospitalized in the Beclere Hospital, near Paris. The procedure that is described here was only a part of this project. Thus, the confederates who asked for money were sincere when saying they were raising funds for the advantage of hospitalized children. The confederates were five female students aged between 18 and 19 from the Department of Business at the University Paris-Sud who had agreed to test the relative efficacy of the three semantic inductions. Participants were randomly assigned to one of the three groups. In the first experimental condition, the confederate stopped a passerby and addressed him or her in these terms: "Excuse me, I am a student at the IUT of Sceaux, I work for the project Love Hospitalized Children. We are collecting funds to buy toys and to organize a show for the children hospitalized at the Beclere Hospital at Clamart; would you agree to give money to restore a little love to these children?"

In the second and third experimental conditions, instead of Love Hospitalized Children, the fictional organization that would benefit from the funds collected was named as, respectively: "Hospitalized Children in Distress"/"Solidarity for hospitalized children". The final sentence was replaced by either: "Would you agree to give money to relieve a little of the distress of these hospitalized children ?" (distress condition)/"Would you agree to give money in solidarity with these children?" (solidarity condition). Additionally, the confederate had to note the apparent age of each participant in one of three brackets: (a) 18 to 35 years, (b) 36 to 55 years, or (c) 56 to 75 years.


Frequency of Helping

A log-linear statistical method was used to analyze the data. A main effect of semantic inducement was found [[chi square] (N = 227) = 11.98, p = .002]. When semantically induced with love, 37.7% of the participants gave money, whereas 24.3% gave money in the solidarity condition, and 13.2% in the distress condition. A main effect of the participant's gender was also obtained [[chi square] (N = 227) = 24.76, p < .001]. When male passersby were solicited, 36.5% agreed to give money to help children, whereas 7.8% of the female passersby gave money. Post hoc comparisons showed that semantic inducement had an effect with male participants [[chi square] (N = 137) = 9.90, p < .01], whereas it had no effect with female participants [[chi square] (N = 90) = 1.48, ns].

Mean Amounts of Money Given by the Participants.

An analysis of variance yielded main effects for semantic inducement [F(2, 224) = 5.08, p < .01] and gender of participant [F(1, 225) = 17.94, p < .001]. Post hoc tests (Fisher LSD tests) suggested that male participants primed with love were significantly more generous (M = .73 [member of], SD = .08) than those primed with solidarity (M = .37 [member of], SD = .09;p < .01) or distress (M = .19 [member of], SD = .08; p < .001). However, male participants in the solidarity and distress conditions did not differ significantly. Female participants did not differ significantly across all the experimental conditions. Male participants gave significantly greater amounts of money than did female participants (M = .43 [member of] vs M = .07, respectively; p < .001).


In the present study we investigated how the activation of an emotional or nonemotional concept can guide helping behavior. We found that the mere priming of these concepts had an immediate effect on behavior. In most studies aimed at testing the behavioral effects of affective states, participants are subjected to relatively enduring states. People induced to feel good or bad, guilty or frightened, try to maintain their good mood or to relieve their bad mood. In the present research, participants had to choose whether or not they would give some money immediately after they had been primed. Therefore, our results could suggest that their decision regarding the action being solicited, occurred outside any alteration of their current affective state. In addition, the present procedure implied concepts that are not typically considered as basic emotions. Love, distress, and solidarity can be defined as emotion schemas, that is, emotional feelings plus learned concepts (Izard, 2007). Emotion schemas also entail a motivational component. Therefore, in our procedure, a motivational component might have been triggered by the semantic inducement. Love entails an outreach motivation, whereas distress may induce protective, avoidant, behavior. Further research would be needed to control for the fact that people are motivated to approach others in order to seek help from them when distress is conceptualized as a personal state, whereas when it is conceptualized as another person's affective state, people would be motivated to escape from a potentially fearful, emotionally contagious situation. Solidarity is semantically connected to the idea of helping others. However, its weaker emotional component, compared with love, might be responsible for its weaker effect on helping.

Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Finkenauer, and Vohs (2001) expressed the view that "bad is stronger than good". Regarding emotions, they argued that negative emotions have stronger effects on behavior than do positive emotions. Our findings, however, do not appear to fit this interpretation. Passersby primed with positive concepts showed greater helpfulness than those primed with the negative concept of distress. It could be reasoned that passersby were induced to be helpful, all the more so as the priming concept was positively valenced, and associated with high emotional or motivational arousal.

Furthermore, our results are consistent with the gender role theory of helping (Eagly & Crowley, 1986) and with the concept of chivalrous helping (Lamy et al., 2009). In the present research, confederates were female, and this may have triggered chivalrous helping among male, but not female, participants induced with the concept of love, as was found in previous research (e.g., Fischer-Lokou et al., 2009). Male passersby were more helpful in the love condition than in either of the two other experimental conditions. When primed with the concept of love, male participants were influenced to conform to a social norm that implies that, especially in a public setting, a man should not leave a woman helpless, especially a young woman. Conversely, in a public setting, women are encouraged to be cautious towards strangers and, thus, usually offer help less often. The norms for helping may become more salient when onlookers are present, or when the idea of love is induced. Indeed, love entails a variety of relational scripts and among these norms exist that prescribe how men and women should behave. Yet, if the people in our experiment who were semantically induced with love were more aware of the social norms for helping, it remains unclear why those induced with solidarity were not as ready to help. The concept of solidarity strongly evokes a norm for helping. Consequently, passersby primed with this concept should have been more aware of this norm, and should have increased their helpfulness. Our findings suggest that the emotional or motivational component of the concepts that were used had a stronger effect on behavior than did the cognitive component of these concepts. Although love is cognitively disconnected from the concept of helping (especially in the case of strangers with whom one is not in love), it is a highly emotional concept. Solidarity is semantically close to helping, though emotionally weaker than love. Finally, the reactions of the passersby to priming may have been driven more directly by the affective, rather than by the cognitive, component of these emotion schemas.

Another possible interpretation of our results is that the priming of love may have triggered a global processing style. In recent research it has been reasoned that love is linked to global, holistic, and creative cognitive processing, whereas sex is linked with analytic, detail-oriented processing (Forster, Epstude, & Ozelsel, 2009). More generally, positive moods are related to more immediate, less analytic information-processing strategy (Berkowitz, 2000). In the present study, participants primed with love may have underevaluated the cost of helping. They may also have been induced to think about and evaluate positively the helping request (Isen et al., 1978), and thus induced to respond more favorably to this request. 10.2224/sbp.2012.40.1.55


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Lamy, L., Fischer-Lokou, J., & Gueguen, N. (2010). Valentine Street promotes chivalrous helping. Swiss Journal of Psychology, 69, 169-172.

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University of South Paris


University of South Brittany

Lubomir Lamy, University of South Paris; Jacques Fischer-Lokou and Nicolas Gueguen, University of South Brittany.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to: Jacques Fischer-Lokou, Universite de Bretagne-Sud, IUT de Vannes, 8 rue Montaigne, 56017 Vannes, France. Email: jacques.
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Author:Lamy, Lubomir; Fischer-Lokou, Jacques; Gueguen, Nicolas
Publication:Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Feb 1, 2012
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