Self-control from Helping Others: Good Deeds Help us Lose Weight and Lift Cars

Help yourself by helping others

Posted Jan 25, 2011

Superman lifting a car

Superhuman strength is a donation away

The popularity of energy drinks is both unmistakable and understandable. We are drawn so thin, so deprived of sleep, that the chance for a few more minutes of alertness is something worth paying for. And the possibility of 5 more hours? Give me ten. If energy is so easily acquired, what about self-control?

We want to resist cheesecake at dinner, we want to stop surfing the web and work, we want to run that marathon instead of just talking about it. Scanning the aisles of shops, however, reveals no "5 hour self-control," no magic bullet of tenacity and perseverance. And rather than extra energy - with which we can waste time extra quickly - extra self control seems to be what we really need, the gondola to reach our goals.

But though there's no magic drink, there is a surprisingly simple solution: Help other people. Yes, it seems that simply doing a good deed, however small, can increase your agency - your capacity for tenacity, self-control and perseverance. For the explanation complete with laugh track and stage make-up, see the TED talk. For the written explanation, read on...

The idea that agency stems from good deeds seems the exact opposite of our intuition. After all, it seems that doing good deeds requires agency. I wanted to tell my friend that her cupcakes were really delicious, but it just takes so much effort to suppress that gag reflex. I wanted to give my money to charity, but it's a long bus ride and US weekly looked too good to miss. Indeed, when we think of people who regularly do good, they're people who seem to have huge amounts of self-control. Gandhi, Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama - each of them seems to have a supernatural reservoir of perseverance allowing them to do good.

Research suggests, however, that such amazing agency actually comes from doing good, not the other way around. This means that each of us can become paragons of self-control (or at least a little better at dodging the cheesecake) simply by helping others. The explanation lies in social psychology, in the power of perception and self-fulfilling prophecies.

Perception. Think of super-heroes. What's the first thing that comes to mind? Agency, you say exasperated - we've already been over this. True, but this is important. We perceive heroes as having increased agency, as people with superhuman strength. Superman can lift a cars to save someone, Spiderman can climb a building without breaking a sweat. So what happens when we do a good deed? We start to perceive ourselves as a bit like a hero, a little bit like Superman, and this turns into...

Self-fulfilling prophecies. Most of us all know this term. You think you're going to fail at your new job, and you do. You think that new guy isn't going to call you, and after the 14 voicemail messages you leave, that turns out to be the case. But with good deeds, here's the thing: you do something good, and all of a sudden, you start to become that hero. You donate to charity and all of a sudden you start to resist the office donuts better. After supporting micro-finance in Indonesia, you start to ignore the funny cat pictures your co-workers send you and actually work.

This may seem far-fetched. With my new toupee, I may perceive myself as a Casanova, but still the rejections come. But there's proof of the power of good deeds! In a series of studies from my lab, we found that simply donating a dollar can increase agency. What's more, it increases physical agency. Those who donated a dollar to charity could hold up a weight significantly longer than those who kept a dollar.

One study found that it is enough just to think of yourself as a good-doer. Those who wrote a story about themselves doing good were also able to hold the weight up longer, which suggests that reconceptualizing our daily tasks could have real benefits. Reconceive returning the library books as contributing to the knowledge of children. Reconceptualize vacationing as benefiting foreign economies, and all of a sudden, you have more power to resist, to march on, and to not give up.

Doing good - or just trying to do it - imbues people with increased agency. So now sticking to your workout routine is now just a donation away. Unfortunately, there's another side to the story: you have a choice. For while good deeds increase agency, so do evil ones. In fact, thinking of yourself doing evil not only increased agency relative to controls, but evil-doers were also slightly stronger than the good-doers.

Of course, there are lots of other reasons to prefer doing good deeds. For instance, they make the world a better place and also appear to increase happiness. But whether you give to charities or steal from your friends, there appears to be power in (im)moral deeds. It's time to realize the hero or villain in ourselves and recapture our self-control.

Forget the cheesecake and let the work begin.