Apr 23, 2010
Performing good deeds (or just thinking about doing them) helps us perform better on tests of physical endurance and willpower, new research suggests. But doing evil things make us even stronger.
Kurt Gray, a postdoctoral student at Harvard University, gave people a dollar and told them they could keep it or donate it to charity. Then he asked them to hold a five-pound weight. He found that those who donated the money could hold the weight for an average of about 10 seconds longer than those who kept the money for themselves.
Next, he asked volunteers to hold the weight while writing a made-up story in which they helped someone else, hurt someone else, or did something that had no impact on another person. Those who thought about performing a good deed held the weight longer than those who thought about a neutral action. Those who imagined harming someone else, however, held the weight the longest.
What’s happening here? Gray calls it “moral transformation.” Helping others, he says, has the power to make average people extraordinary. Strength comes from moral actions, not the other way around. As Gray explains:
People perceive those who do good and evil to have more efficacy, more willpower, and less sensitivity to discomfort. By perceiving themselves as good or evil, people embody these perceptions, actually becoming more capable of physical endurance (Harvard Gazette).
The findings contradict suggestions that only those people with heightened willpower or self-control are capable of heroism. Researchers believe that simply attempting heroic deeds can confer personal power (Telegraph).