Some people perceive that willpower must be summoned seemingly from thin air in order to complete difficult tasks, and that physical ability is solely derived from training and physiology. In a study recently concluded at Harvard University, however, researchers found that performing –or even just thinking about performing– good or bad deeds had a significant effect on willpower and physical ability. Perhaps even more surprisingly the work shows that negative actions may prove even more powerful than those that benefit others.
The work was carried out with a group of participants who engaged in two tasks. The first involved being given a dollar, and participants were then told to either keep the dollar or to donate it to charity. After making the decision, participants were instructed to hold a small weight up for as long as they possibly could. Results showed that those participants who opted to donate the dollar performed better than those who kept the bill. In the following experiment, participants held a weight while writing a fictional story in which they did something that was helpful to other people, harmful to other people, or which had no effect on other people at all. Those whose stories involved a good or bad deed were better able to hold the weight, and participants who included a harmful action in their story were even more impressive in terms of their performance.
The results may have important implications both for people who struggle with self-esteem and confidence issues and those who only encounter difficulty with such themes from time to time; as one professional has suggested, performing a good deed in the morning may help the rest of the day or a stressful event at work run more smoothly. Hopefully, of course, the study will not be used to justify the performance of harmful deeds –but it may promote more research to discover how this effect functions, and how it might be harnessed for useful practices and treatments.
© Copyright 2010 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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