Valuing selflessness can help people feel more confident and less hostile in stressful situations. The corresponding study was published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
“Selfless values can be like life vests that buoy a kind of higher power and resilience, freeing us from worry and defensiveness,” said Ian McGregor, professor of personality and social psychology at the University of Waterloo, the study’s lead author.
“Focusing on a greater good beyond themselves had the paradoxical effect of making participants’ psychologically stronger and more reasonable," he added.
The researchers conducted two experiments for the study. In both experiments, participants were reminded of stressful topics such as relationship problems and moral violations. They were then asked to describe how their life goals reflected their highest values.
In one experiment, 197 participants wore an electroencephalographic (EEG) headset to measure their brain activity related to power and enthusiasm. In the other experiment, 490 participants rated how determined and enthusiastic they felt.
The participants also filled in various personality questionnaires with different inventories to assess 78 traits, including self-esteem, life satisfaction, depression, positive affect, religious zeal, and 'meaning search'.
In the end, the researchers found that focusing on selfless values was linked to heightened EEG and feeling ratings of personal power, which was in turn linked to reduced harsh judgments.
The researchers noted, however, that these effects only occurred in participants who reported persistent engagement in the pursuit of purpose and meaning in their lives- or 'meaning search'- and in none of the other 77 personality traits assessed.
The findings complement the researchers' other work that shows that devotion to virtue predicts wise reasoning and respect for others' perspectives in times of conflict.
“Together, the present and previous research suggest that devotion to virtue may be an under-appreciated antidote to hostility and hate in the real world," said Dr. McGregor.
"Virtue and hate are alternative levers for activating personal power and meaning in life. If you have one, you feel less need for the other,” he added.