Low self-control promotes selfless behavior in close relationships

June 27, 2013

When faced with the choice of sacrificing time and energy for a loved one or taking the self-centered route, people's first impulse is to think of others, according to new research published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

"For decades have assumed that the first impulse is selfish and that it takes self-control to behave in a pro-social manner," says lead researcher Francesca Righetti of VU University Amsterdam in the Netherlands. "We did not believe that this was true in every context, and especially not in ."

Righetti and colleagues sought to examine whether , in close relationships, might actually benefit others.

They found that participants whose self-control was taxed (and were thus more impulsive) were more willing to sacrifice time and energy for their or best friend than participants whose self-control wasn't taxed.

In one study, to find out whether they would sacrifice in actual practice, the researchers told they would have to talk to 12 strangers and ask them embarrassing questions. The participants didn't know that they wouldn't actually have to follow through with the task.

Participants with high self-control opted to split the burden right down the middle—assigning six strangers to themselves and six strangers to their partner. But participants with low self-control opted to take on more of the burden, sacrificing their own comfort to spare their partners.

A final experiment revealed that married individuals low in trait self-control sacrificed more for their partners, yet were also less forgiving of their —presumably because self-control is required to override the focus on the wrongdoing and think instead about the relationship as a whole.

While sacrificing for a partner may help to build the relationship on a day-to-day basis, Righetti and colleagues note that it could backfire over the long-term, compromising individuals' ability to maintain a balance between personal and relationship-related concerns.

This balance is a perennial issue for anyone in a close relationship:

"Whether it's about which activities to engage in during free time, whose friends to go out with, or which city to live in, relationship partners often face a divergence of interests—what is most preferred by one partner is not preferred by the other," notes Righetti.

The field of research is relatively new, so the jury is still out on what effects sacrifice has on relationship well-being, but Righetti is hopeful that research over the next few years will shed more light on the link.

Explore further: Good days, bad days: When should you make sacrifices in a relationship?

Related Stories

Excessive Facebook use can damage relationships, study finds

June 6, 2013

Facebook and other social networking web sites have revolutionized the way people create and maintain relationships. However, new research shows that Facebook use could actually be damaging to users' romantic relationships. ...

We're emotionally distant and that's just fine by me

February 13, 2013

When it comes to having a lasting and fulfilling relationship, common wisdom says that feeling close to your romantic partner is paramount. But a new study finds that it's not how close you feel that matters most, it's whether ...

Recommended for you

Elderly may face increased dementia risk after a disaster

October 24, 2016

Elderly people who were uprooted from damaged or destroyed homes and who lost touch with their neighbors after the 2011 tsunami in Japan were more likely to experience increased symptoms of dementia than those who were able ...

Research examines role of early-life stress in adult illness

October 24, 2016

Scientists have long known that chronic exposure to psychosocial stress early in life can lead to an increased vulnerability later in life to diseases linked to immune dysfunction and chronic inflammation, including arthritis, ...

Plan ahead for successful aging, researcher says

October 20, 2016

For many people, the prospect of aging is scary and uncomfortable, but Florida State University Assistant Professor Dawn Carr says that research reveals a few tips that can improve our chances of a long, healthy life.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.