The Wheatley Institution

The Heliotropic Effect: The Wheatley Insitution's Approach to Ethics and Virtuousness

Kim S. Cameron
April 1, 2016

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I will share with you some of what we are doing at the University of Michigan and some of what has occupied my time for the last 15 years or so. This is now the seventh year that I have been spending four weeks a year with leaders of the national intelligence agencies: CIA, FBI, NSA, DIA and all those groups. And I spend about five days a year, every year, and have been for 20 years, with army generals, normally, one- or two-star generals. It is really interesting to be with those people because they are so current and they are so involved in keeping us all alive. We are in an environment in which I do not think anybody accurately would predict the next five years. It is just way too chaotic. At this very moment, 40% of the people on the planet are online.[1] Can you imagine that? By the way, because everyone is essentially connected, hardly anybody that is dangerous anymore has signed the Geneva Convention or has treaties. It is the sort of group that we do not even know where they are. That is our major danger. Only 11 countries are not involved in armed conflict.[2] We are in a chaotic environment. Normally, the reason we have ethics is to govern chaos and to keep things under control. The problem is, when everything is changing, and it is, it is impossible to manage change. You cannot manage change when everything is changing. Think, for example, of an airplane flying along at 600 mph. If you cannot find something that does not change, like the stars, like the ground, you cannot navigate. Do you remember John Kennedy Jr. flying from New York up to Boston? It got dark. It was cloudy. He lost track of anything that did not change. He flew his plane into the ocean at 125 mph, killing himself and his wife and her sister.[3] You cannot manage change unless you can find something stable.

Ethics—except for people who have testimonies of the gospel and so the Savior is their constant—for the most part, is the means by which organizations create some kind of stability. In academic literature, the dominant, although not exclusive, focus of ethics in publications is on avoiding harm, adhering to contracts, obeying the law, fulfilling duties and obligations, and keeping people from doing wrong things. That is the reason for ethics, which is fine. The trouble is, ethics is not stable. Ethics does not serve like principles of the gospel serve because of its changing nature. Think of ethics as it relates to civil rights. I am old enough to remember when it was very different. Some things which now are considered completely unethical were just fine then. A WTAE reporter mentioned that there was a murder in some neighborhood in a big city, and on Facebook she said that we have a real problem with black-on-black crime. She got fired because it was not clear that it was black on black.[4] In 1975, that would not have been unethical. It is now. Ethical standards have changed dramatically. Our daughter is a nurse in one of the school districts in California, and she is now required to teach that gender is fluid. That would have been unethical earlier. Ethics is not stable.

Well, what is stable? I want to suggest to you to think of deviance as on a continuum, with “normal” in the middle, “negative deviance” to the left and “positive deviance” to the right. Deviance by definition means an aberration from the norm, unexpected and not normal behavior. We can think of negative deviance, but we can also think of positive deviance. There are several important implications of thinking of deviance on a continuum. One of them is that all organizations exist to eliminate deviance. We organize and eliminate deviance, otherwise there is chaos and we cannot get anything done. Organizations by definition try to be right in the middle of the continuum, at normal. Another implication is that we know a lot more about one end of the continuum than the other. Think of physical health. I got the flu, I got diabetes, I got heart disease, I got something. Ninety percent of all medical research focuses on the deficit gap, the gap between normal and negative deviance. Positive deviance in physical health would be Olympic fitness levels, 5% body fat for me and 15% body fat for women. There is not much research on that gap between normal and positive deviance, the abundance gap. In psychology it is worse. Ninety-nine percent of all psychological research focuses on depression, anxiety, stress, burnout, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, and so on. In a finance class or a normal ethics class, the general assignment for a case study is, “What is wrong? What are the problems? What are the obstacles? Come up with some recommendations and defend yourself. Are we going to be profitable? Are we eliminating conflict? Are people’s relationships okay?” That is fine, except most of what we know stops there. I refer to the other end of the continuum, the positively deviant state in organizations, as a virtuous condition. In the original Greek and Latin, virtuousness simply means the best of the human condition. The highest aspirations we have for ourselves are a virtuous state. When you are at your best, you are in a virtuous condition. In music, virtuosity is the most inspiring, best performers. If the world was virtuous, there would be no poverty and no war, everybody would be educated. It would be the best we can imagine. That is what virtuousness is.

What I want to suggest is that we spend most of our time on, in fact ethics by and large is restricted to, the negative side of the deviance continuum. The positive side is what I want to focus on. Let me tell you why that is important. If you focus on abundance gaps or virtuousness, you unleash something called the heliotropic effect. Do you know what the heliotropic effect is? Every living system, everything alive has a tendency toward positive, away from negative, toward light, away from dark. An example of the heliotropic effect is when you put a plant in the window and over time it leans toward the light. In nature, the Sun is the source of positive energy. It is the life-giving force. Most accurately defined, the heliotropic effect is that every living system is inclined toward that which is life giving and away from that which is life depleting. It makes sense. Over time species are attracted to that which gives life, and are repelled or avoid that which endangers or detracts from life. If that is true, if every living system, including people, are inclined toward and flourish in the presence of the positive and languish, or avoid, or are denigrated by the presence of the negative, it has enormous implications for how we rear our children, what kind of incentive systems we have in our organizations, how we train leaders, how we educate our students, and so on. What I want to do is explain the heliotropic effect and try to prove to you it is correct. I am going to show you a very small amount of the research, but I want to convince you that the heliotropic effect exists and then talk about what that means for us.

A study was done originally at Michigan and has been replicated multiple times.[5] A physician puts a drop of liquid in which there is cold virus, rhinovirus, at the bottom of subjects’ nostrils. They breathe in the virus, some people get sick, and some people do not. The question is, how do you predict who gets sick? It turns out that a half a degree difference in the temperature at the back of the throat, where the esophagus meets the nasal passages, causes people to succumb to the virus verses be resilient. A person’s emotional state affects the temperature. Happy, optimistic, positive people get sick significantly less often than depressed, angry, cynical people. The classic study that illustrates this is called the Nun Study.[6] It is a study of 678 Catholic nuns living in a convent. This was originally designed as an Alzheimer’s disease study, so these women were between the ages of 75 and 104. Some had Alzheimer’s disease, but they had the same diet, some regiment, same environment, so you can control for a lot of factors. There was a side-finding that emerged out of that study. They found the journals or diaries of 180 of those women when they entered the convent 60 years before. Some women were saying, “This is the culmination of my life’s dream. I am so happy to enter the order, this is such a blessing.” Some were saying, “This is going to be challenge, this is going to be a sacrifice, this is going to be difficult, but I am committed, I am going to follow through.” Difference? Positive verses what they call vigilant. Then they simply counted the number of nuns alive in each group 60 years later. These numbers are not precise, but they are very close and they represent the difference. Of the 90 nuns in the first group, 70 were alive. Of the 90 nuns in the second group, 10 were alive. At every decade, there was a significant difference in mortality rates. It turns out the positive ones lived 13 years longer on the average.

Now for the second study.[7] This is a study, but let us assume for a minute that I am interested in having a group of people become better bowlers. We are all going to go down to the bowling alley and we are going to bowl three games. Here is the challenge: I am going to give $1,000 to people who can improve their bowling score by ten pins. The challenge is that they only have 30 days to do it. We are going to get a baseline, we are going to bowl three games, and I am going to film them. Then for half of them, I am going to show the video of when they were bowling, but I am going to show only when they made strikes and spares. For the other half, I am going to show only when they did not make strikes and spares. Thirty days later, we come back together and we all go down and bowl three more games. Some of them get the money. Who would get the money? People from the first group would get the money. The results occur even if they do not practice, but they are not as statistically significant. The question is why? Why do people bowl better just by watching themselves make strikes? Well, that is easy. It is because they are getting confident and are seeing their success. Think about this. The first time you were out playing basketball, you mostly missed. Why did you not learn how to miss? When you think about when you learn, the first thing that happens is you learn a lot of mistakes. Why do the mistakes not stick? The answer is the heliotropic effect. Inherent in your DNA is the tendency to learn the positive. Otherwise you would not be this old: You would not have survived. You would not have adapted. You do not have to choose the positive; it is inherent in the DNA. It is heliotropic. All human beings have it.

I used to do this in my classes and many people do this now all over the country.[8] Let us assume that I say to my MBA class, “You are required to keep a journal every day this semester.” Then I say to one half of the students, “You are required to write down three things every day for which you are grateful, or the three best things that happened to you that day.” To the other half of the students I say, “You write down three events or three problems you faced.” There is a journal group and a gratitude journal group. Seven days later I am going to give all of the students flu shots. One week after that, I am going to test for the number of antibodies in their systems. Those who kept the gratitude journal are going to be healthier in seven days than the other students are. I am not asking them to train for a marathon or lose weight or give up chocolate, I am asking them to put themselves in a virtuous condition once a day. It is not only gratitude, but it is generosity and it is kindness and a bunch of other virtues that create the same result. I will give my students a mental acuity task. They have to memorize information, they have to remember information, they have to come up with a sophisticated decision rule with complex data. The students keeping a gratitude journal have more mental acuity than their peers. They are going to be smarter, literally. I will give them a creativity task. What is that? Well, I ask them to think of all the things they can use a brick for, or a ping pong ball. The gratitude journal students come up with more ideas and a broader variety of ideas. That is mental flexibility. I am asking them to keep a gratitude journal. That is not very sophisticated. Why does it work? Here is why it works. There is an organization called HeartMath where they study heart rhythms. Your heart rhythms are erratic when you are upset, and they are regular when you are in a virtuous condition.[9] There is a study of what is called coherence.[10] In your body you have rhythms. You have heart rhythms, brain rhythms, muscle twitch rhythms. When everything is perfectly aligned, that is called coherence. You can measure coherence; the ideal level is 0.1 Hz. When you are in a gratitude or virtuous position, your coherence is perfect, much better than when you are upset or when you are asleep. You cannot get better physically than when you are in a virtuous condition. There was a study where it simply asked people to think about a positive, optimistic, or virtuous future, verses a neutral or negative future. They are just going to be thinking about stuff. I am then going to do a scan of their brains. More areas of their brains are activated in the positive state, and they are activated to a greater extent. They are smarter in that positive, virtuous condition, than in a neutral or negative condition.[11] There was also a study of what is called vagal tone. You put a monitor on your heart and you get a line with a blip. That is vagal tone. You want it to go up; you do not want it flat. We can induce significantly improved vagal tone just by inducing a positive emotional and/or virtuous condition. Over time, that means far more long-term well-being because the vagus nerve, which goes from the back of your brain stem down around your heart and back, controls your heart rhythms, controls internal organs, controls the amount of inflammation in your body, and so on. You simply do better.[12]

There is a study of children three months old to eight months old, pre-language children. For the experiment, they put the child on the caregiver’s lap to watch a puppet show for maybe 15 to 20 seconds. One puppet starts across the stage and starts to climb a hill or tries to open a box. Two other puppets enter the stage. One helps, that is facilitates, and the other one hinders: jumps on the box so the other puppet cannot open it, puts a block up the hill. Then after 15 seconds, they bring these two puppets out and put them in front of the child and the child can simply take which one he or she wants to play with. If they are too young to grab, like a three-month-old, they simply measure eye movement. Which one does he or she focus on? Over 90% of the time, infants overwhelmingly prefer puppets that try to help rather than hinder, even when they are not successful. The conclusion of this study is that inherent in the human condition is a tendency toward virtuousness from the time we are three months old—maybe before that, but you cannot measure anything before that.[13] The heliotropic effect is inherent in the human condition. It is unleashed, fostered, and enabled when you put yourself in a virtuous condition (more than ethics, because ethics is variable).

But what about organizations? Just because we have a lot of positive people in the room, it does not necessarily make for a great organization. My own research for the last 15 years has been asking the question, “Yeah, but does this really work in organizations? They are far more complex. Trying to run IBM is a lot more difficult than having a child or a classroom behave that way.” My own research has studied a whole bunch of organizations, including intelligence agencies, the military, education, healthcare, manufacturing, retail, and so on. Financial services has been among the most significant. The conclusion is as follows: If you implement virtuous practices, if you create an abundance culture (I am calling it an abundance culture, which is really characterized by virtuousness), you will make more money; profit goes up, productivity goes up, quality goes up; there are fewer mistakes, fewer errors; there is innovation, more ideas, more creativity, new product development; customer loyalty, customer satisfaction, customer attention goes up; and employee engagement, employee retention, employee satisfaction, and employee morale goes up. I have not found any disconfirming evidence so far. In one study, we looked at financial service organizations, Wall Street firms. You would say, “Look, of all the places on the planet that do not care about virtuousness, it is Wall Street. Show me the money. If I have 100 million dollars invested in that portfolio, I want to know 15 minutes from now if it is going up or down.” We took 40 firms, we simply asked them to implement positive practices. Some took us seriously, some did not. Then two years later, we simply said, “Are you getting better? Are you getting worse? Now let’s measure financial performance.” I can account for half the variance in financial performance. I do not know anything that accounts for half the variance in financial performance except for virtuousness. And by the way, I think the Lord is doing the same thing with us. There are some things that have to be stable and unchangeable and this is one of them.


[1] “Internet Users,”, accessed August 2, 2016,

[2] Adam Withnall, “World Peace? These Are the Only 11 Countries in the World That Are Actually Free from Conflict,” Independent, August 14, 2014, accessed August 2, 2016,

[3] Ed Vulliamy, “Why Kennedy Crashed,” Guardian, July 25, 1999, accessed August 2, 2016,

[4] Jason Cato, “WTAE Fires Anchor Wendy Bell over Controversial Facebook Remarks,” Trib Live, March 30, 2016, accessed August 2, 2016,

[5] Mark B. Hershenson and Sebastian L. Johnston, “Rhinovirus Infections: More Than a Common Cold,” American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine 174 (2006): 1284–1285.

[6] David Snowden, “The Nun Study,” University of Minnesota, December 15, 2008, accessed August 3, 2016,

[7] Daniel S. Kirschenbaum, “Self-Regulation and Sport Psychology: Nurturing an Emerging Symbiosis,” Journal of Sport Psychology 6, no. 2 (1984): 159–183.

[8] Robert A. Emmons and Michael E. McCullough, “Counting Blessings versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 84, no. 2 (2003): 377–389.

[9] Rollin McCraty and Doc Childre, “The Appreciative Heart: The Psychophysiology of Positive Emotions and Optimal Functioning,” Institute of HeartMath, 2002, online, accessed August 3, 2016,

[10] Rollin McCraty et al., “The Coherent Heart: Heart–Brain Interactions, Psychophysiological Coherence, and the Emergence of System-Wide Order,” Institute of HeartMath, 2006, accessed August 3, 2016,

[11] Tali Sharot et al., “Neural Mechanisms Mediating Optimism Bias,” Nature 450, no. 7166 (November 1, 2007): 102–105.

[12] Bethany E. Kok et al., “How Positive Emotions Build Physical Health: Perceived Positive Social Connections Account for the Upward Spiral Between Positive Emotions and Vagal Tone,” Association for Psychological Science 24, no. 7 (May 6, 2013): 1123–1132.

[13] Marco F. H. Schmidt, Hannes Rakoczy, and Michael Tomasello. “Young Children Enforce Social Norms Selectively Depending on the Violator’s Group Affiliation,” Cognition 124, no. 3 (2012): 325–333.

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