Do good motivations increase physical endurance? Do evil motivations increase it even more?
New research from Harvard University suggests that moral actions may increase people’s 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 physical strength following mean-spirited 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 said. “By perceiving themselves as good or evil, people embody these perceptions, actually becoming more capable of physical endurance.”
Gray’s findings are based on two studies. In the first, participants were given $1, and were 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.
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