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Stories have inspired human beings to be and do their best since the beginning of civilization. Religions worldwide use stories to teach the value of virtuous behavior, and moral stories feature prominently in children’s literature and education. The stories we hear and tell exert a powerful force in motivating our actions, making sense of them afterwards, and guiding us towards better behavior in the future. Yet there has been surprisingly little experimental work investigating how narratives influence moral behavior and instigate moral learning. Our project addresses this gap by providing a detailed empirical study of how moral narratives both enable and constrain the virtues of generosity, altruism and honesty. Understanding these mechanisms will prove a crucial step towards unlocking the human potential for virtue.

The proposed research will explore these issues synthesizing recent advances in philosophy, economics, and behavioral science. Using behavioral experiments and cutting-edge computational modeling techniques, we will identify the cognitive mechanisms that explain (i) how the stories people hear influence their moral behavior, and (ii) how the stories people tell about their own behaviors influence moral learning. By experimentally manipulating the content of moral narratives and measuring the cognitive channels through which they affect behavior, we will gain new knowledge about which elements and types of moral narratives are most effective in bringing about positive change. We will write up the findings of our studies and publish them in academic journals, present them to academic audiences across a range of disciplines at conferences and workshops, and share our findings with the general public through media engagement. Through this work, we will provide empirical evidence and practical advice for how to tell stories that can effectively inspire virtuous behavior.