Human goodness and digital technology: Potential for research

Social media and prosocial video games are venues with the potential to boost societal well-being.

By Dana Klisanin

Last year Martin Seligman launched the “Flourish 51” initiative calling for a global boost in well-being by 2051. Specifically, by this date, his goal is to have 51 percent of the world’s population experience flourishing. It goes without saying that an achievement of this magnitude depends upon many factors, but perhaps none holds more promise than the intentional exploration, use, and design of digital technologies.

Seligman agrees, citing social media and prosocial video games as venues with the potential to boost societal well-being (Chamberlin, 2011). In light of this potential, how might we, as Members of Division 46, facilitate this intention? Where can we look to expand our sense of the possible insofar as research into the positive potential of digital technologies is concerned?

Although human flourishing has long been of interest to psychologists across the breadth of the discipline, nowhere is this focus more notable than in the Humanistic, Transpersonal, and Positive schools of psychology. Although these schools have unique philosophic groundings, they share intentions conducive to expanding our sense of the possible and with it research that aims to explore the positive potential of digital technologies. Humanistic Psychology intends, or holds the view, that human beings are basically good; Transpersonal Psychology intends that human beings can experience spiritual or unitive states of consciousness; and Positive Psychology intends that human beings can thrive, lead fulfilling lives, in a word—flourish.

As the matrices within which my own education was nurtured, early on I found myself recognizing that an essential feature of media capable of promoting societal flourishing would be the integration of qualities of high moral development, (i.e., character strengths and virtues) with Internet technologies. I coined the term transception to refer to this fusion and began to notice exemplars on the Web (Klisanin, 2005). Before long, I was investigating digital altruism, networked heroism, and most recently the emergence of an archetype embodying the heroic act as mediated by digital technology—the cyberhero (Klisanin, 2011, 2012).

Opportunities for such research abound in the form of creative social media initiatives worldwide.1 Through keeping the intentions of the Humanistic, Transpersonal, and Positive schools of psychology in mind media psychoSuch intentionality is more important than we might realize. Global access to the Internet is increasing in large part due to mobile, or smart phone proliferation, but some researchers (e.g., Anderson & Rainie, 2008) do not expect this access to yield more personal integrity, social tolerance, or forgiveness. Although we don’t often think about it, the foci of our research can influence and affect such outcomes, for example, Aquino, McFerran, & Laven (2011) designed four studies to determine whether people are inspired to do good by thinking about acts of goodwill and whether common acts of kindness would be enough to elicit feelings of moral elevation, or whether the deeds had to be extraordinary. They exposed participants to various forms of media (e.g., articles and videos) demonstrating either common or extraordinary acts of kindness and then gave them an opportunity to contribute money to others or keep it for themselves. They found that hearing about extraordinary good deeds made participants more likely to give away their money, and that those who saw themselves as highly moral were more likely to give away money more often than those who did not. The findings led the researchers to suggest that “even a seemingly weak stimulus, like a story of moral goodness, can evoke moral elevation responses in nonexperimental settings” (2011, p. 716).logists can investigate the impact of these various initiatives and facilitate the design of future initiatives.

If successfully replicated, Aquino et al.’s findings have tremendous implications that could promote personal integrity, social tolerance and even forgiveness, altering, perhaps even reversing Anderson and Rainie’s (2008) expectations. For example, one implication of the Aquino et al.’s findings is that societies might become healthier if the news media routinely showcased extraordinary stories of goodness. Indeed, the noted futurist Barbara Marx Hubbard (1998) has been calling for creating and airing “good news” for years due to the conviction that society mirrors what it projects. Aquino et al. have provided evidence supporting this view. But the implications of this research only begin with the news media—they continue into the expansive domain of social media. What would the consequences be if people everywhere realized the power they have to affect social well-being simply through sharing positive stories via social media such as Facebook? What if “liking” such content has a positive ripple effect as well?

Globally, hundreds of millions of people routinely use social media to act on behalf of others. Researching this area may impact people in more than one way: (a) scientists send a message that human goodness is a valued behavior; and (b) research can provide ways of promoting goodness and human flourishing. As scientists, we don’t know what we’re going to find when we set out on an exploration, but we know one thing—to find a diamond we must be willing to enter the mine.


Anderson, J., & Rainie, L. (2008). The future of the Internet III. Retrieved April 2010, from Summary-of-Findings/1-Summary.aspx?r=1

Aquino, K., McFerran, B., & Laven, M., (2011). Moral identity and the experience of moral elevation in response to acts of uncommon goodness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100, 703-718. doi: 10.1037/a0022540

Chamberlin, J. (2011). Flourish 2051. Monitor on Psychology, 42(9), 56-57. Available online at:

Hubbard, B. M. (1998). Conscious evolution. Novato, CA: New World Library.

Klisanin, D. (2005). Transpersonal artistry: Designing evolutionary guidance media. The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 37, 52-77.

Klisanin, D. (2011). Is the internet giving rise to new forms of altruism? Media Psychology Review [Online], 3, 1. Available from: index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=215&Itemid=180

Klisanin, D. (2012). The hero and the internet: Exploring the emergence of the cyberhero archetype. Media Psychology Review [Online], 4, 1. Available from: 16&Itemid=182

About the Author

Dana Klisanin was awarded the 2012 Division 46 Early Career Scientific Contribution to Media Psychology.

1. A number of these initiatives were recently celebrated at the Social Good Summit.