The (Super-)Power of Good and Evil Intentions

Science news website Livescience recently featured an article that may give hope to aspiring superheroes (and supervillains) everywhere. Recent research, the article reports, suggests that acts of kindness or malice – real or envisioned – can boost one’s willpower and even one’s physical strength. In other words: we can all be ‘super’ if we want to be!

The research, carried out by Kurt Gray from the Department of Psychology at the University of Havard, involved volunteers being asked to hold on to a 5lb weight for as long as they could, for which they would be paid a dollar. Half of the participants were asked if they would like to donate their dollar to charity (everyone did). It was found that the charitable folks held on to the weight for an average of 53 seconds, contrasted with 46 for those who did not donate. A second, similar, experiment asked participants to write a story while holding on to the weight in which they were either helping, hurting or acting neutrally to another person. In this experiment, it was found that the benevolent writers gained an extra five seconds of endurance, while the malevolent story-writers gained an average of eight extra seconds.

OK, so we might not be talking about dodging speeding bullets or stopping a runaway locomotive here. But nevertheless, the study does suggest that intentions have an impact on, if not one’s physical strength, at the very least one’s willpower and endurance.

Does this mean that we can all be ‘super’ if we want to be? Perhaps not. Rather, it is questionable whether the first study contributes much to our understanding of human capacities past the folk-ish wisdom that people who are highly motivated to perform tend to be better at sticking to tasks and enduring hardships. The second, by contrast, is much more interesting. Here is Kurt Gray’s analysis, via Livescience:

“When you think of superheroes or super villains, [you think of people] that can possess huge amounts of willpower and are relatively unfazed by pain… and because of your stereotype of heroes and villains, you kind of embody that, or transform yourself into your perception of hero and villain.”

Nevertheless, however, it still seems that any wannabe super-folk may need to wait a little longer to realise their dreams.

Dr Gray’s research is currently forthcoming in Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Related Article:

Morality and Psychology
By Chrisoula Andreou, University of Utah
(Vol.1, December 2006)
Philosophy Compass

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