Study: Doing Good Makes You Stronger…Unfortunately, So Does Doing Wrong

New research from Harvard University suggests that exemplary ethical conduct may increase an individual’s willpower and physical endurance. Research subjects who performed good deeds or who only imagined helping others excelled over others of similar physical strength in a subsequent task of physical endurance presented by behavioral scientists.

This is good news: the boost in self-esteem, certitude and commitment created by the decision to do something noble and good helps enable us to actually do it, if it is physically challenging. The bad news seems to be that the same holds for people who have made up their minds to do something particularly dastardly, according to the same data.

The research was  published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Explained Harvard researcher Kurt Gray:“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…Gandhi or Mother Teresa may not have been born with extraordinary self-control, but perhaps came to possess it through trying to help others…this research suggests that physical strength may be an effect, not a cause, of moral acts.”

Gray calls this effect “moral transformation” because it suggests that such deeds have the power to transform people from average to exceptional. He believes the research can be used to help individuals perform better in daily life, by doing good along the way.

Or, in the alternative, setting homeless people on fire.

The 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 a 5-lb weight up for almost 10 seconds longer, on average, than those who did not. In the second study, subjects were asked to write stories about themselves doing remarkably good deeds, particularly bad ones, or taking action that had no particular effect on anyone else either way. Again, those who thought about doing good were significantly stronger than those whose actions didn’t benefit other people. The would-be evil-doers, however, were even stronger.

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