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4:51 pm
Thu September 26, 2013

Putting Good Deeds In Headlines May Not Be So Good

Originally published on Thu September 26, 2013 6:19 pm

An online collection has raised more than $145,000 for a man who stumbled onto a pile of money and turned it over to police.

Glen James' story of a good deed is just one of many making headlines. It may not be exactly brand new, but public interest does seem to be piqued these days by ordinary folks making what are seen as extraordinary ethical decisions.

Some, however, question if airing this kind of "good" news is actually good.

A Series Of Good Deeds

James' story — he's the homeless man in Boston who turned in a backpack filled with $42,000 — went viral. So did another recent story about a Dairy Queen manager from Minnesota who stood up for a blind man who didn't know he'd been robbed.

The blind man dropped a $20 bill, and a woman picked it up and pocketed it. The manager threw her out of the restaurant and then handed the man $20 from his own pocket.

Just a few weeks before that, stories swirled about four college football players who found themselves inside a store that was accidentally left unlocked.

Instead of just taking what they wanted, they left every penny they owed at the checkout. One television report called it "a story of honesty that's become a shining beacon of righteousness."

"There are lots of people who suffer from moral myopia, and so when you see this good happening, it renews some of your faith," says University of Texas professor Mimi Drumwright. She says these are the types of stories you hope will inspire copycats: "The reports of these good deeds probably are going to begat more good deeds, and that is a good thing."

Already, countless strangers have been paying it forward with $20 tips to the Dairy Queen worker, and everything from jobs to gift cards for the other do-gooders — not to mention the small fortune for Glen James.

Moral Grade Inflation

But at the risk of twisting any of these precious good-news stories into more bad news, experts say there may be a downside to overplaying it.

"They did do the right thing, and that's commendable. But heroic? I think not," says Carnegie Mellon ethics professor Peter Madsen. He sees the high praise swirling around the stories as a kind of moral grade inflation.

"They had an obligation to do what they did. It was not above and beyond the call of duty. They really just did what we should have expected them to do," he says.

When you celebrate what should be ordinary behavior as extraordinary, experts say, it sends a dangerous message.

"I do worry about a culture in which people are giving selves credit for not having done terrible things. It sets a really low bar for what it takes to be a good person," says London Business School professor Daniel Effron. Effron, who teaches behavioral ethics, says feting folks for what he calls "the immoral road not taken" could actually encourage bad behavior.

When guys with integrity get put on a pedestal, he says, the implication is that they're exceptional — far greater than the rest of us.

"It suggests that most people in that situation would have done those bad things. So, it reinforces a norm that most people are selfish and self-serving, and therefore, it's OK if you're selfish and self-serving," Effron says.

The Big Surprise

Others, however, suggest the reason these stories are seen as remarkable is not because we diminish ourselves, but because of the way we diminish these particular do-gooders.

"In this particular case — I'll just say it — the homeless man was an African-American guy, and most of the young football players who paid for their goods were African-American," says Candace Upton, who teaches moral psychology at the University of Denver. "I don't think it's beyond this culture at this time to say that we do have lower expectations, which is unfair. But that's what sets up the big surprise, and hence probably the big response."

Giving good Samaritans celebrity treatment may also have the unintended consequence of creating monster expectations, kind of like a kid expecting a prize every day that he's not late for school. You have to be careful not to go overboard, as one expert put it. But celebrating people for doing the right thing is still the right thing to do.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

You may have heard about the homeless man in Boston who was honored by police last week for turning in a backpack full of cash that he'd found in the street. The man's actions have caused his own fortune to grow. An online collection has raised several thousand dollars to reward him. His is just one of many stories of good deeds making headlines. But as NPR's Tovia Smith reports, some question of airing such good news is actually good.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: It may not be exactly brand new, but public interest does seem to be piqued these days by ordinary folks making what are seen as extraordinary ethical decisions.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS REPORTS)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Well, a homeless man in Boston receiving high praise for doing the right thing.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: For homeless American, doing the right thing...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: ...honored today in Boston for turning in tens of thousands in cash...

SMITH: The story went viral, much like another recent story about a Dairy Queen manager from Minnesota who stood up for a blind guy who didn't know he had been robbed. The blind man dropped a $20 bill and a woman picked it up and pocketed it. The manager threw her out of the restaurant and then handed the blind guy $20 from his own pocket.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS REPORTS)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The manager of a Dairy Queen showed how sweet he really is...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: A simple act of kindness suddenly is making headlines everywhere.

SMITH: And just a few weeks before that, stories swirled about four college football players who found themselves inside a store that was accidentally left unlocked.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS REPORT)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: A good deed caught on tape...

SMITH: Instead of just taking what they wanted, they left every penny they owed at the checkout.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS REPORT)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: ...story of honesty that has become a shining beacon of righteousness.

MIMI DRUMWRIGHT: There are lots of people who suffer from moral myopia. And so when you see some of these good things happening, it renews some of your faith.

SMITH: University of Texas professor Mimi Drumwright says these are the kind of stories you hope will inspire copycats.

DRUMWRIGHT: The reports of these good deeds probably are going to begat more good deeds. And that is a good thing.

SMITH: Already, countless strangers have been paying it forward with $20 tips to the Dairy Queen guy, and everything from jobs to gift cards for the other do-gooders, not to mention the small fortune for the homeless man. But at the risk of twisting any of these precious, good news stories into more bad news, experts say there may be a downside to overplaying it.

PETER MADSEN: They did do the right thing, and that's commendable. But heroic? I think not.

SMITH: Carnegie Mellon ethics professor Peter Madsen sees the high praise swirling around these stories as a kind of moral grade inflation.

MADSEN: They had an obligation to do what they did. It was not above and beyond the call of duty like a hero would be. They've really just done something that we should have expected them to do.

SMITH: When you celebrate what should be ordinary behavior as extraordinary, experts say, it sends a dangerous message.

DANIEL EFFRON: I do worry about a culture in which people are giving themselves credit for not having done terrible things, right? It sets a pretty low bar for what it takes to be a good person.

SMITH: London Business School professor Daniel Effron teaches about behavioral ethics. He says feting folks for what he calls the immoral road not taken could actually encourage bad behavior.

EFFRON: It suggests that most people in that situation would have done those bad things. So it reinforces a norm that most people are selfish and self-serving, and therefore, it's OK if you're selfish and self-serving.

SMITH: Others, however, suggest the reason these stories are seen as remarkable is not because we diminish ourselves but because of the way we diminish these particular do-gooders. Candace Upton teaches moral psychology at the University of Denver.

CANDACE UPTON: In this particular case, I'll just say the homeless man was an African-American. And most of the young football players who paid for their goods were African-American. And I don't think it's beyond this culture at this time to say that we do, I think, have lower expectations, which is unfair. But that's what sets up the big surprise and hence probably the big response.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Yahoo! News, daytime TV shows, you name it, everyone wants to talk to this kid, and we got a chance. Today, Fox...

SMITH: Giving Good Samaritans celebrity treatment may also have the unintended consequence of creating monster expectations, kind of like a kid expecting a prize every day that he is not late for school. You have to be careful not go overboard, as one expert put it. But celebrating folks for doing the right thing is still the right thing to do. Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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