Being naughty or nice may boost willpower, physical endurance

Apr 19, 2010

New research from Harvard University suggests that moral actions may increase our capacity for willpower and physical endurance. Study participants who did good deeds -- or even just imagined themselves helping others -- were better able to perform a subsequent task of physical endurance.

The research, published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, shows a similar or even greater boost in following dastardly deeds.

Researcher Kurt Gray, a doctoral student in psychology at Harvard, explains these effects as a self-fulfilling prophecy in morality.

"People perceive those who do good and evil to have more efficacy, more willpower, and less sensitivity to discomfort," Gray says. "By perceiving themselves as good or evil, people embody these perceptions, actually becoming more capable of physical endurance."

Gray's findings run counter to the notion that only those blessed with heightened willpower or self-control are capable of heroism, suggesting instead that simply attempting heroic deeds can confer personal power.

"Gandhi or Mother Teresa may not have been born with extraordinary self-control, but perhaps came to possess it through trying to help others," says Gray, who calls this effect "moral transformation" because it suggests that moral deeds have the power to transform people from average to exceptional.

Moral transformation has many implications, he says. For example, it suggests a new technique for enhancing self-control when dieting: help others before being faced with temptation.

"Perhaps the best way to resist the donuts at work is to donate your change in the morning to a worthy cause," Gray says.

It may also suggest new treatments for anxiety or depression, he says: Helping others may be the best way of regaining control of your own life.

Gray's findings are based on two studies. In the first, participants were given a dollar and told either to keep it or to donate it to charity; they were then asked to hold up a 5 lb. weight for as long as they could. Those who donated to charity could hold the weight up for almost 10 seconds longer, on average.

In a second study, participants held a weight while writing fictional stories of themselves either helping another, harming another, or doing something that had no impact on others. As before, those who thought about doing good were significantly stronger than those whose actions didn't benefit other people.

But surprisingly, the would-be malefactors were even stronger than those who envisioned doing good deeds.

"Whether you're saintly or nefarious, there seems to be power in moral events," Gray says. "People often look at others who do great or evil deeds and think, 'I could never do that' or 'I wouldn't have the strength to do that.' But in fact, this research suggests that physical strength may be an effect, not a cause, of moral acts."

Explore further: Study finds interest in the goals you pursue can improve your work and reduce burnout

Related Stories

Psychologists study perception of mind

Feb 07, 2007

U.S. psychologists have determined people perceive the minds of others using two distinct dimensions, rather than one as previously believed.

Why Saints Sin and Sinners Get Saintly

Jun 26, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- To many, New York Gov. Eliott Spitzer's fall from grace seemed to make no sense at all. But a new Northwestern University study offers provocative insights that possibly could relate to why the storm trooper ...

Men, women give to charity differently, says new research

Dec 18, 2008

To whom would you rather give money: a needy person in your neighborhood or a needy person in a foreign country? According to new research by Texas A&M University marketing professor Karen Winterich and colleagues, if you're ...

Psychologists shed light on origins of morality

Feb 26, 2009

In everyday language, people sometimes say that immoral behaviours "leave a bad taste in your mouth". But this may be more than a metaphor according to new scientific evidence from the University of Toronto that shows a ...

Recommended for you

Screenagers face troubling addictions from an early age

17 hours ago

In 1997, Douglas Rushkoff boldly predicted the emergence a new caste of tech-literate adolescents. He argued that the children of his day would soon blossom into "screenagers", endowed with effortless advantages over their parents, ...

Better memory at ideal temperature

17 hours ago

People's working memory functions better if they are working in an ambient temperature where they feel most comfortable. That is what Leiden psychologists Lorenza Colzato and Roberta Sellaro conclude after having conducted ...

User comments : 4

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

paulthebassguy
5 / 5 (1) Apr 20, 2010
I see, so I could get ripped in 4 weeks by giving my money to charity as opposed to some online bodybuilding subscription.
akotlar
1 / 5 (3) Apr 20, 2010
In other news, heightened emotions boost adrenaline! Is this really news.
ThomasS
3.7 / 5 (3) Apr 20, 2010
You don't know the true power of the dark side!
NonRational
1 / 5 (1) Apr 20, 2010
"dastardly deeds." - what is the scientific term for this? heh

A caveat: those who think themselves as heroes are often the most dastardly.

More news stories

New clinical trial launched for advance lung cancer

Cancer Research UK is partnering with pharmaceutical companies AstraZeneca and Pfizer to create a pioneering clinical trial for patients with advanced lung cancer – marking a new era of research into personalised medicines ...

More vets turn to prosthetics to help legless pets

A 9-month-old boxer pup named Duncan barreled down a beach in Oregon, running full tilt on soft sand into YouTube history and showing more than 4 million viewers that he can revel in a good romp despite lacking ...