Suppose it’s your lucky day, and you win $240. But it’s not just your money, because you are meant to share the prize with your spouse. Fortunately, they do not know about the money, nor that you won in the first place, and you can share it in whichever way you please. Now here is the big question: How do you split the money between yourself and your partner?
Do you split the money fair and evenly? Do you keep a bigger winner’s fee for yourself? Or do you feel generous and give your partner a larger portion of the prize?
The scenario mentioned above is called the Dictator’s game (because one person decides for themselves and others), and it is often used in psychological experiments to study when people act selfish or selfless. Naturally, people are more generous when they are close to the other person – such as when the other person is their spouse. And yet, even then, a small intervention can make a big difference in the size of their spouse’s share of the money.
From Selfish to Selfless
In a recent study in Nature Scientific Reports from Andrew Gloster’s lab at the University of Basel, researchers investigated when people in committed relationships act in selfish or selfless ways. As it turns out, a small intervention of mere 15 minutes could lead people to act more selflessly towards their partner – a full week after the intervention. A bit over 13% of those who did not have the intervention behaved selfishly toward their partners, but the “micro-intervention” lowered that to less than 5% — cutting down the rate of selfishness by two-thirds. When you consider that these are changes in how you treat the person closest to you, that’s a pretty dramatic difference!
Even outside the unlikely event that you or your spouse win a sizable amount of money, this intervention speaks volumes about the degree in which we can be influenced to put our partner’s needs before our own. In real life, it could mean the difference between telling convenient lies, or communicating openly and honestly, even when the truth is hard.
So what is this intervention that turns your spouse into someone who leaves you that last slice of pizza? Well, it has nothing to do with psychological trickery, and instead is all about building psychological flexibility.
This may sound complex, but it basically means helping a person connect with their goals and values, and empowering them to act on them – even when it’s hard and uncomfortable. As you can imagine, this not only leads them to be more generous when it’s hard, but also makes them more effective in other areas of their lives.
The Power of Psychological Flexibility
There is a growing amount of scientific research into the many benefits of psychological flexibility – from being mentally stronger, to performing better in academics, sports, and work, and engaging in more selfless, values-oriented behaviors in general. And as you have seen in the study, a simple exercise of only 15 minutes can already make a big difference.
The participants in the study were asked to describe the struggles they are currently experiencing in life, and reflect on what is genuinely important to them, such as their goals and values. Using a daily diary, they were instructed to practice awareness and acceptance skills using methods drawn from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, that helps them make room for emotions and thought that might interfere, even while taking steps towards meaningful activities.
Naturally, it’s not enough to simply do this exercise once and then be done. Just like going to the gym, you will have to train your psychological flexibility skills regularly and frequently. The more you practice, the more mentally strong you will become. Incidentally, when you are psychologically flexible yourself, you also increase the odds of your partner being psychologically flexible. And who knows, they might just be more willing to lovingly leave that pizza slice for you, or to share that next lottery win!