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Thinking good (or bad) thoughts increases endurance

April 22nd, 2010

A new study from Harvard University suggests that it’s good to be a good guy, but better to be a bad guy:

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.

The researcher,  a psychology grad student named Kurt Gray, calls the effect “moral transformation.” It suggests that we may have cause and effect backwards, he says: It’s not that people who do great things have incredible strength and willpower; instead, people who attempt great things gain strength and willpower by making the attempt.

So what does this mean for exercisers? Well, I haven’t been able to dig up a copy of the original paper, so I’m relying on a press release whose details are somewhat sketchy:

Gray’s findings are based on two studies. In the first, participants were given a dollar and 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.

So it doesn’t sound like this will be a magic ticket to unlimited strength and endurance. Still, it might be worth keeping the power of mental imagery in mind next time you’re working out — you might combine the power of evil thoughts with the ergogenic effects of swearing for maximum effect.

  1. Eric Teske
    April 22nd, 2010 at 13:29 | #1

    I’d be very interested to read about the second study where participants held a weight while writing fictional stories. I was very pleased to see that the control involved the same activity (writing neutral stories rather than not writing anything at all). At first I assumed the benefits to writing stories came from disassociation with the pain of holding the weight to failure – but it looks like they’ve got it covered.

  2. alex
    April 22nd, 2010 at 23:39 | #2

    Yeah, I’d like to read more details too. I went to the journal in question, but didn’t see the paper listed — perhaps it’s coming out in a future issue. If and when I get my hands on a copy, I’ll post more details.

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