Don’t Underestimate Good Intentions

good intentions

Recent research published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science shows that good intentions can play a major role in our everyday experience of pleasure and pain.

In the first study, researchers had participants sit in an easy chair with an electronic massage pad. In one group, the machine was turned on by a computer; and in the other group, the machine was turned on by another human. Although the massages were exactly the same, researchers found that individuals consistently experienced more pleasure by the massage when a person flipped the switch.

As it turns out, the idea that another human being made a conscious effort to turn on the machine made the participants perceive the massage as more enjoyable.

In the second study, people were given a package of candy with a note on it for Valentine’s Day. For half of the participants the note read, “I picked this just for you. Hope it makes you happy.” For the other half the note read, “Whatever. I don’t care. I just picked it randomly.”

Researchers found that the candy tasted better and sweeter when the participants received the note of good intentions rather than the note that said they were chosen randomly. Again we see that individuals seem to enjoy their experiences more when they are accompanied with positive attention.

A third study tested pain from an electric shock. One group was told the electric shock was done by a person accidentally. A second group was told the electric shock was done maliciously. And a third was told the electric shock was done benevolently, in an effort to help them win money.

People who received the shock benevolently reported much less pain than the other two groups. Just the idea that the shock was done in good intentions made the participant feel less hurt.

These 3 studies are simple, but they have profound implications on the role of good intentions in our everyday lives.

  • By giving people the benefit of the doubt that they are good and well-intentioned, we can improve our own experiences with others. On the other hand, if we go about our day being suspicious and thinking everyone has ulterior motives, we end up making our experiences less pleasurable.
  • By acting with good intentions ourselves, we improve other people’s experiences. People like knowing that other people are doing something out of the good of their heart. When we show that we actually care about someone else’s well-being, we make life better for them. This goes on to improve our relationships and our ability to build positive connections.

Often we may fall into the trap of thinking only consequences matter – only physical actions – and intentions are unimportant. But research seems to indicate that we do care about the intentions of others. It matters if someone accidentally spills their drink on your new shirt, or if they consciously spill their drink on you in order to upset you, even if the consequences of the action itself are the same.

In the same way, it matters if we act with good intentions in mind vs. if we act indifferently or with malice. In general, we all like to believe that we are living in a world where people are generally good and everyone wants everyone to be happy. Having a cynical attitude toward life can instead hurt our well-being and make us less likely to connect with people in a healthy way. Try exercising good intentions more often and you’ll see an increased ability to build positive connections and enjoy your life more.

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