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Category: Morality

How Being Bad Can Raise Your Will Power

How Being Bad Can Raise Your Will Power

Could imagining yourself doing bad or good increase your will power?

Psychologists have been aware for decades of a phenomenon known as “priming.”  In which thinking about a concept can cause you to behave in ways aligned with that concept.

For example, in one study having college students complete crossword puzzles that had words such as “old” in it caused them to behave in ways more stereotypically associated with old people.  As a result, they walked down a hallway much slower than participants that filled out a neutral crossword because “old” is associated with “slow.”

It turns out that many people associate greater self-control and endurance to people who are moral.  So researchers wanted to see if thinking about morality actually increased will power and physical endurance.

In one of three experiments they had participants hold a weight in their hand to see how long they could hold it to get a measure of their strength.  Then they had the participants hold the same weight again while writing one of three stories.

One group wrote stories of themselves doing a good deed.  Another group wrote neutral stories and yet another group wrote stories of themselves doing a bad deed.

What they found was that people who imagined themselves doing good or bad deeds held the weight longer than they did before – proving that thinking about morality actually increases endurance.  Those in the neutral condition experienced no change.

In another experiment they had people hold a weight after donating to charity or keeping some money for themselves and they got similar results: those who donated were stronger than those who kept the money.

What researchers conclude is that behaving in a moral way increases will power.  People like Gandhi or Mother Theresa may not have been born with great wills.  They may have developed them through their moral actions.

They also suggest that people could use the strategy of helping others to increase their ability to resist temptation.  So a person who wants to avoid eating those donuts at work might try giving away some spare change on the way to the office.

What I take from this is that if you are thinking of doing some good in the world but are holding back because you are not sure you have the ability, you may want to think again.

It could be that the only way you’ll develop the traits needed to accomplish your goal is by setting out to achieve it in the first place.

What do you think of this research?  How might you apply it?  Please leave your comments below.

Reference to study above:

Gray, K. (in press). Moral transformation: Good and evil turn the weak into the mighty. Social Psychological and Personality Science.