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Low Self-Control Makes Better Lovers: Impulsivity Promotes Self-Sacrifice in Close Relationships

Update Date: Jun 27, 2013 06:00 PM EDT

Low self-control may actually promote selfless behavior in close relationships, a new study suggests.

When people are given the choice of sacrificing time and energy for loved ones or taking the self-centered route, people's first impulse is to think of others, according to new research.

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

Researcher in the current study wanted to see if impulsivity in close relationships might actually benefit others. The study revealed that participants with low self-control were more willing to sacrifice time and energy for their romantic partner or best friend than participants with higher self-control.

In one experiment researchers told couples they needed to talk to 12 strangers and ask them embarrassing questions.  Researchers found that participants with high self-control opted to split the burden right down the middle by 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 by sacrificing their own comfort to spare their partners.

Another experiment revealed that married individuals with low self-control sacrificed more for the partners.  However, these impulsive individuals were also less forgiving of their partner's transgressions.  Researchers said this might be 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 build the relationship on a day-to-day basis, researcher said that it could backfire over the long-term by compromising people's ability to maintain a balance between personal and relationship-related concerns.

"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," Righetti explained.

The findings are published in the journal Psychological Science.

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