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The Truth About Sacrifice

Is our first impulse to be selfless?

By Leonora Desar

It’s Saturday night and your spouse wants to watch “Storage Wars” (again), even though your favorite band is playing at the same time on “SNL.” Do you make a sacrifice and give in, or do you make a mad dash for the remote control and change the channel?

Psychologists have typically assumed that your first instinct would be to race for that remote. Self-control, they have found, is key to resisting selfish impulses and doing positive things for a partner like staying faithful, forgiving major transgressions, and resisting the urge to act aggressively. But new research published in Psychological Science suggests that there is more to the story: Those who act according to their gut intuition may in fact sacrifice more for their partner than those with self-restraint.

“In close relationships we didn't believe that the first impulse was to be selfish,” says Francesca Righetti, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor of social psychology at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. “That’s because there’s a tendency in those relationships to be attentive to the partner’s needs, and to take care of one another.”

Righetti and her co-authors drew from previous research, which found that people depleted of self-control make choices based on habit rather than on a careful consideration of their options. Since the default tendency in close relationships is to help one’s partner, wouldn’t it make sense, they speculated, that those acting impulsively would make more sacrifices for their loved ones?

To test their theory, the researchers conducted a series of studies examining the link between self-control and the willingness to sacrifice. In a lab experiment, each participant was told that they and their significant other had to go up to strangers separately and ask them embarrassing questions, and that they alone were in charge of dividing up how many people they and their partner would approach. Participants whose self-control was tapped in an earlier exercise opted to sacrifice by taking on more than half of the dirty work, while those who acted deliberatively split things up about halfway. This, along with the other experimental outcomes, suggests that our gut impulse is in fact to make daily sacrifices in close relationships.

The idea that low self-control promotes a willingness to sacrifice may seem surprising at first, but it actually makes perfect sense, says Anastasiya Pocheptsova, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Maryland. “When we think about sacrifice our first reaction is that it requires a lot of resources,” she says. “But if we’re depleted we're more likely to choose the default strategies that we're used to using in our close relationships.”

People with low self-control also act according to what is most salient or pressing in a situation, which in the case of intimate relationships is the partner’s need, explains Righetti. But those with high self-control are not slaves to their habitual impulses, or to what seems most pressing in a situation. Instead, they have the ability to weigh their significant other’s wants against their own goals and desires.

The authors’ findings are consistent with a recent body of work that contradicts the long-held assumption that people are naturally selfish.

“Most of the studies done before have been with economic game experiments where people are in very artificial lab environments and in totally anonymous relationships with strangers,” says David Rand, an assistant professor of psychology, economics, cognitive science and management at Yale University. “(Righetti’s) research adds a layer of social richness and shows that these effects exist in real relationships.”

Righetti is quick to point out though that her studies only looked at the minor sacrifices that people make in daily life, like letting your partner decide what movie to watch or canceling your plans so that you can spend time with them. In fact, she suspects that the relationship between self-control and the willingness to make larger sacrifices, like moving to another country, might work very differently: “It’s possible that for big sacrifices what is really salient in the situation is the cost for the self,” she speculates. “Because those with low self-control rely on what is salient in the situation, they might sacrifice less.” An unpublished study by other researchers supports this theory: They found that self-regulation, rather than impulsivity, is associated with making major sacrifices.

While having an impetuous partner may get you off the hook when it comes to watching a boring movie or doing chores around the house, Righetti and her co-authors also found that those with less self-control are also less forgiving. While this may seem counterintuitive, the same process is at play: People high in self-control can weigh multiple factors, says Righetti, which allows them to look past their partner’s transgression and consider the importance of the relationship.

Next up for Righetti is a look into how sacrifice impacts relationship and individual well-being. “Research has found that people are happiest in their relationship when they are able to maintain a balance between their personal and relationship needs,” she says. “We expect to find that sacrifice is bad for the relationship or for the individual when it’s quite frequent, and when it’s costly.”

Leonora Desar is an editorial intern at Psychology Today.

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