When people face the choice of sacrificing time and energy for a person that they love or taking a self-centered route, their first impulse is to think of others, a new research has suggested.
Lead researcher Francesca Righetti of VU University Amsterdam in the Netherlands, said that for decades psychologists have assumed that the first impulse is selfish and that it takes self-control to behave in a pro-social manner, which she said they did not believe that this was true in every context, and especially not in close relationships.
Righetti and colleagues found that participants whose self-control was taxed were more willing to sacrifice time and energy for their romantic partner or best friend than participants whose self-control wasn't taxed.
In one study, to find out whether they would sacrifice in actual practice, researchers told couples that 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.
However, 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 transgressions - 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.
The new research has been published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.