More important and surprising actions of a moral exemplar trigger stronger admiration and inspiration,
Alfred T. M. ArcherTilburg University &
More important and surprising actions of a moral exemplar trigger stronger admiration and inspiration


Admiring a moral role model has been found to inspire people to become better persons themselves. But what are the antecedents that trigger admiration and thus make inspiration more likely? In three studies, we tested the effect of perceived importance and perceived surprisingness of the moral action on resulting admiration and inspiration. Study 1 finds that perceived importance, and to a lesser extent, the perceived surprisingness of a moral action, are related to stronger admiration. Manipulating the perceived importance of the same moral action by only providing a little more detail about the moral action, could increase the admiration and inspiration the role models elicit (Studies 2 and 3). Our findings help the understanding of how moral exemplars trigger inspiration and provide valuable insights into further investigation toward the causes of admiration.

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Admirationinspirationmoral elevationrole modelsappraisals
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Moral exemplars, like other role models, affect people in three key ways: They act as behavioral models that provide examples of how one could behave, they show what is possible, and they inspire (Morgenroth, Ryan, & Peters, 2015). We focus on this latter effect: How do moral exemplars affect inspiration? The key to this is that admiration leads to inspiration (Algoe & Haidt, 2009), to prosocial behavior (Schnall, Roper, & Fessler, 2010), and to an increased motivation to improve oneself (Schindler, Zink, Windrich, & Menninghaus, 2013; Van de Ven, 2017). Admiring moral role models is thus likely to have various positive outcomes. Yet it is not fully clear what the antecedents of admiration are. What aspects make it more likely that people feel admiration toward a moral exemplar? In the current work, we look at two possible factors that are expected to make the experienced admiration for a moral exemplar more intense: the perceived importance and the perceived surprisingness of her moral actions. Finding such antecedents is important not only when we try to understand the link between admiration and emulation, but also when we want to use moral exemplars in education to inspire pupils to become better persons (Engelen, Thomas, Archer, & Van de Ven, 2018; Kristjánsson, 2006).

Note that in this article we focus on admiration for moral exemplars. Some scholars argue that the emotion “admiration for skill” differs from admiration for moral actions, which is our focus here, calling the latter “admiration for virtue” (Immordino-Yang, McColl, Damasio, & Damasio, 2009) or “moral elevation” (Algoe & Haidt, 2009). We do not wish to enter the debate on whether admiration for skills and virtue are distinct emotions, subtypes of one emotion (admiration), or the same emotion in different domains. Rather, we make it clear here that we focus on admiration for a moral exemplar, and draw from the literature on admiration and moral elevation.

In our studies, we report the effects of how stories about moral exemplars are told on the levels of admiration people feel for these exemplars, which in turn is expected to influence levels of inspiration. This follows the idea of well-established emotion theory (e.g., Frijda, 1988), namely that an appraisal of a situation leads to the emotional feeling of admiration, which in turn triggers action tendencies (inspiration to improve oneself). Emotion theorists such as Frijda state that action tendencies are an important part of the emotional experience: We feel an emotion because it triggers certain behavior that helps us deal with the situation at hand. We therefore measure both the feeling component (admiration) and the more motivational action tendencies (inspiration) and consider the former to trigger the latter. Although we conceptualize them (and measure them) as different aspects of the full emotional experience of admiration, if one zooms out on that experience these components are part of the same experience. This is, for example, how moral elevation has been operationalized, as both a feeling and motivation (Schnall et al., 2010). Our main analysis treats admiration as an antecedent feeling that triggers inspiration. As a robustness check of our results, we also add a measure typically used in the work on moral elevation to verify whether results are similar (as we expect them to be) if our measure combines the feeling and motivation component into one measure. This also helps us strengthen our contribution, as it uses a dependent variable that follows traditional emotion theory and that is often used in research on moral elevation.

The antecedents of admiration

So what do we already know about the antecedents of admiration for moral exemplars? First, such admiration is triggered by the perception of a moral action (Haidt, 2003). Yet it is not any moral action that triggers admiration: Holding a door for someone is virtuous, but it does not necessarily trigger admiration. Indeed, Algoe and Haidt (2009) indicate that not all moral virtues trigger admiration, but that moral excellence does (see also recent theoretical reviews by Onu, Kessler, & Smith, 2016; Thomson & Siegel, 2016). Yet, to the best of our knowledge, such antecedents have not yet been empirically tested. While we agree that the perception of moral excellence lies at the core of (moral) admiration and elevation, we think that there are more factors that contribute as antecedents to moral admiration.

We predict that two aspects of a moral action will make it more likely to be seen as excellent: It needs to be perceived as important and as out-of-the-ordinary (or in other words, surprising). With perceived importance we indicate evaluations (in this case, of an action) that are evaluated as being more significant, weighty, and/or valuable. First, situations that are more important and more relevant to an organism, are known to trigger more intense emotions (Frijda, 1988). Frijda argues that emotions exist because they help an organism cope with the situation, to avoid danger, or to approach opportunities. The more important the situation is to an individual, the stronger the emotional response is to make sure the organism responds to that situation. This is why we also predict that when moral actions are seen as being more important, the resulting admiration is likely to be more intense.

Second, surprise arises when a situation is unexpected or deviates from the “normal” schema (Meyer, Reisenzein, & Schützwohl, 1997). If this unexpectedness exceeds a certain threshold, surprise is felt, which focuses the attention on the surprising event. If exceeding a standard lies at the core of admiration, as Haidt (2000, 2003)) argued, then surprise (that has the deviation from a “normal” schema at its core), is likely to fuel admiration as well. We are not the first to point to the idea that importance and surprise are likely important antecedents of admiration. For example, Schindler et al. (2013) noted that dictionary definitions of admiration contain elements of surprise and wonder. The link between surprise and admiration can even be traced back to the work of philosopher Smith (1759/2007, I.i.4.3), who claims that “Approbation heightened by wonder and surprise, constitutes the sentiment which is properly called admiration.” Similarly, Darwin (1872/1998, p. 269) claimed that admiration consists in “surprise associated with some pleasure and a sense of approval.” To the best of our knowledge, however, this idea has not been tested, which is what we aim to do here.

Finding the antecedents of admiration for moral exemplars is important, as it might help in designing interventions that can inspire people to become better persons. Much thought has been given to how moral exemplars can be used in moral education (Kristjánsson, 2006), and admiration plays an important role in this respect (see also Morgenroth et al., 2015; Schindler, Paech, & Löwenbrück, 2015). Admiration inspires people to emulate moral exemplars (Schindler et al., 2013) but also to think about their own goals and to set new ideals and targets (Blatz, Lange, & Crusius, 2016). In our work, we measure inspiration at a broad level, using a generic question on whether people feel inspired but that does not specify the more specific types of inspiration.

To summarize, our main idea is that perceived importance of and perceived surprise about the actions of a moral exemplar relate to stronger feelings of admiration, which in turn lead to more inspiration to become a better person. The specific hypotheses we have are thus: H1: Actions of a moral exemplar that are perceived as more important will trigger more admiration, and therefore also more inspiration.


Actions of a moral exemplar that are perceived as more surprising will trigger more admiration, and therefore also more inspiration.

We test these hypotheses in three studies. In all studies, we report how we determined our sample size, all data exclusions (if any), all manipulations, and all measures (following the recommendations of Simmons, Nelson, & Simonsohn, 2011). All data and the appendices we refer to can be found at the Open Science Framework (OSF) at

Study 1

In Study 1, we presented participants with one of eight different stories showcasing morally outstanding behavior. Stories varied from known cases such as Nelson Mandela’s struggle for the end of apartheid that affected millions of people, to lesser known cases of morally outstanding behavior such as that of Ray Coe, a teacher who donated a kidney to a pupil. We expected that the more important the accomplishment was perceived to be and the more surprise people felt over it, the more they would admire the moral exemplar and as a result would be more inspired to become a better person themselves. We also measured how happy people felt when reading this story. This allowed us to test whether the effects on inspiration were indeed specific to admiration and not due to other positive affect (such as happiness), as past research found that feeling good can lead to prosocial behavior (e.g. Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005). By including happiness, we could test whether admiration has an effect independent of another positive feeling. Finally, moral admiration is very similar to the concept of moral elevation. As a robustness check for our results, we also added a measure of moral elevation (Schnall et al., 2010). This measure contains both the feeling (admiration) and motivation (inspiration) components of the experience of moral admiration, and we thus expect that perceived importance and perceived surprise over the moral action of the exemplar would also affect moral elevation. 1


Participants were recruited via mTurk. We aimed for 800 participants who were paid $0.48 for a study expected to last 4 minutes. We had no prior expectations about effect sizes but wanted a large enough sample to possibly explore differences between stories and therefore chose 100 participants for each of the eight stories. Restrictions were set so we only had mTurk workers located in the United States and in good standing (> 95% of prior work was accepted). Before analyzing the results of this study, we determined that reading the story and responding to the 17 questions within 30 seconds would be unfeasible. Nine participants did so and were left out of the analysis. We eventually had 793 participants, with 426 males and 365 females (2 classified themselves as ‘other’), M age = 37.26 years, SD = 11.57, range 19 – 78.

Procedure and design

Participants were randomly assigned to one of eight conditions, each displaying a different story of a moral exemplar (see Appendix A). Participants read one of the eight stories and then answered three sets of questions. First, they responded to the main questions of interest: perceived importance (“How important do you feel the main character’s actions were?”), perceived surprise (“How surprising was the behavior of the main character to you?”), admiration (“I admire the main character of the story”), happiness (“When reading this story, I felt happy”), and inspiration (“I feel inspired when reading about this person”). As another dependent variable, we added a six-item measure of moral elevation (Schnall et al., 2010) that combines the feeling (admiration) and action tendency (inspiration to improve) of admiration into one measure of moral elevation. Items asked whether the participant felt moved, uplifted, optimistic about humanity, a warm feeling in their chest, that they wanted to help others, and that they wanted to become a better person themselves. These questions were combined into a single scale (α = .95). All questions were answered on a scale from 0 (not at all) to 6 (very much so). The order of these questions was randomized. Appendix B contains the exact question wording for all dependent variables.

Results and discussion

Table 1 contains the descriptive statistics and correlations across all stories combined. 2 For the main tests that use correlations, we standardized the variables for each story separately so we could combine the results of the stories for a total analysis. The correlations confirm that, across all stories, the more important participants thought the behavior of the moral exemplar was, the more they admired him/her, and the more inspired they were. The same held for surprise: The more surprising the behavior of the moral exemplar was, the more the behavior of the moral exemplar elicited admiration and inspiration.

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More important and surprising actions of a moral exemplar trigger stronger admiration and inspiration
Niels van de Ven , Alfred T. M. Archer & Bart Engelen

The most important prediction we wanted to test is whether the expected antecedents of admiration (surprise and importance) had an effect on inspiration via admiration. We therefore tested this with a mediation analysis (across all stories) by means of the bootstrapping method of Preacher and Hayes (2004) using 10.000 samples and bias corrected intervals. Although the data is cross-sectional, we do think that mediation analysis makes sense, as the theoretical idea based on emotion theory (Frijda, 1988) is clear that the perception of the situation (importance, surprisingness) influences the affective response (admiration), which in turn influences action tendencies (inspiration). The model is presented in Figure 1. We added admiration, together with happiness that was found to correlate with inspiration, as well as possible mediators to look for the unique effect of admiration. In the analysis of surprise, we control for perceived importance; in the analysis of perceived importance, we control for surprise. This allows us to get their independent effects on inspiration.
More important and surprising actions of a moral exemplar trigger stronger admiration and inspiration