State Moral Elevation Scale (SMES)

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Purpose: The purpose of this study was to develop a self-report questionnaire that assesses state-level experiences of moral elevation—a positive emotion experienced after witnessing virtuous behavior that is described as feeling moved, uplifted, or inspired by witnessing such an act. Furthermore, this study aimed to establish psychometric properties of this new measure including internal consistency, convergent validity, divergent validity, and incremental validity.

Background: Moral elevation (hereafter, elevation) is a positive emotional state with features that are distinctive from other emotions such as what triggers it, the emotional and physical response, and the subsequent action tendency or motivations. First, elevation is triggered by witnessing another person perform an act you would consider as incredibly virtuous, such as an act of remarkable generosity, compassion, or perseverance. This witnessed event can lead the observer to feel inspired and uplifted in response, accompanied by positive physical sensations that can include warmth in the chest, goosebumps (i.e., pilorection), tears, and a lump in the throat (Algoe & Haidt, 2009). This experience is typically followed by strong desires to emulate the witnessed virtuous behavior (e.g., “I want to act generously too”), become a better person, and engage with others (Aquino, et al., 2011; Oliver, et al., 2012).

Scientific interest in elevation has steadily increased since 2009 when researchers first examined this emotion in experimental studies (Algoe & Haidt, 2009; Silvers & Haidt, 2008). To date, extant studies have assessed the experience and benefits of elevation, and found several psychological and social benefits that include prosocial behavior, increased compassion, desire to connect with others, and lower mental health symptoms (e.g., Cox, 2010; Erickson & Abelson, 2012; Erickson et al., 2017; Schnall & Roper, 2012). Therefore, continued research is warranted, particularly in clinical populations to determine how elevation might be useful to people suffering from significant psychological distress. However, the biggest limitation to the current body of literature is inconsistencies with the measurement of elevation.

Although there were well-established measures of trait-like tendencies to experience elevation (e.g., Diessner et al., 2008; Landis et al., 2009), there were no measures of state elevation that have been thoroughly assessed for psychometric properties to date. Consequently, experimental and daily diary studies use different versions of state elevation measures, often without rigorous psychometric analyses to determine if their measure is a reliable and valid assessment of state elevation. If this area of research is to continue growing and researchers aim to expand our understanding of how elevation can be useful to both clinical and nonclinical populations through the means of scientifically rigorous studies, a validated measure of state elevation was needed. Therefore, this project developed a new measure of state elevation based on an extensive literature review of previously used elevation measures, and conducted rigorous psychometric analyses to establish a new 9-item measure: the State Moral Elevation Scale.

The SMES is a psychometrically valid and reliable assessment tool for state-level elevation which can be used in both general and clinical populations. It is also free and available for use.

Adam P. McGuire
Adam P. McGuire
Assistant Professor of Psychology