April 19, 2010
Good Or Evil Ups Willpower

People who act morally ambivalent have less willpower. Use the force Luke. The dark side works too.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., April 19, 2010 -- New research from Harvard University suggests that moral actions may increase our 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 dastardly 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 says. "By perceiving themselves as good or evil, people embody these perceptions, actually becoming more capable of physical endurance."

The world is a battle between good and evil because the morally neutral just do not have the get up and go.

There's a cool part of this: It is enough to just imagine yourself helping others to boost your willpower. No need for real altruism. You can just pretend to be good. Is that cool or what? Explains so much moral posturing. Next time you see someone flashing symbols of taking the moral high road you can be sure they are just trying to build up their willpower to do what they really want to do.

So I'm imagining a superhero who doesn't have enough willpower to fly thru the air. Suddenly a thought bubble pops up over their head showing them saving babies and mothers from, say, an evil biker gang. Suddenly the superhero can fly off and he flies to a tropical beach to hang out and pick up surfer girls while drinking margaritas. Make your moral battle fantasies big enough and who knows what great feat you'll be able to pull off.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2010 April 19 11:49 PM  Brain Performance

matthew f. said at April 20, 2010 3:58 AM:

probably just a coincidence but this is discussed by a frequent poster at lesswrong: pj eby


Imagination is more powerful than we think. Ex: a mouse will swim twice as long as a control mouse who falsely believes a platform exists in a tank of water to save it from drowning than a mouse who was never exposed to the platform.

James Bowery said at April 20, 2010 8:27 AM:

Could something like this be at work in the fictive kinship of team sports competition or war propaganda portraying the other side as evil incarnate?


Lono said at April 20, 2010 8:37 AM:

I can attest to this as my Lawful Good allignment definately powers up my Megalomania - even on days when Conquering the Earth seems like too daunting a task even for myself.

The funny thing though - no matter how hard I try - I can never successfully explore the joys of being Lawfully or Chaotically Evil - even in the virtual world - I just lose all motivation to continue down that path.

Perhaps it is because it just doesn't seem like much of a challenge to pick on the little guy - especially when he is already down and out.


PacRim Jim said at April 20, 2010 11:47 AM:

Another report by Mr. Obvious.

Charles Martel said at April 21, 2010 9:35 PM:

Most of us know that, on average, religious people have the most children. A study I saw about a year ago showed that the next highest birthrate was not among "spiritual but non-religious" or agnostics, but outright atheists.

It seems there is no Darwinian patoff for being a moderate or a fence-sitter. Maybe that's why humanity can't find the middle ground.

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