Why do we make sacrifices for our loved ones? Research tells us that our commitment is what motivates our willingness to sacrifice.1 Sacrifice, after all, is really about navigating a conflict of interest. We encounter these conflicts of interest when our own personal needs and goals are incompatible with those of our partner or our relationship overall (e.g., continuing to watch our favorite Netflix show vs. helping a partner prepare for a job interview). In order to sacrifice, we have to resist the gut-level urge to act selfishly and instead focus on the long-term benefits to our relationship.
Of course, some sacrifices are easier to make than others. Taking out the trash for a spouse doesn’t take the same kind of effort as helping him or her fill out tax forms. Just because we’re motivated to address our partner’s needs does not necessarily mean we can. Forgoing self-interest can require a great deal of mental effort, or executive control. Executive control is a label psychologists use for a collection of mental abilities that help people work toward achieving their goals. This includes things like resisting temptation (e.g., not eating cake if you’re on a diet), switching quickly between tasks (or multitasking), and remembering new information.2
Researchers in the Netherlands were interested in learning whether executive control also enables sacrifice in relationships.3 In a first study, they asked 44 young adults in relationships to fill out a survey about their relationship commitment and then complete at tricky task to test their level of executive control. So, how did this task work?
Basically, they were shown words on a computer screen one at a time, written in blue, red, or white font. The words themselves were either emotional (e.g., “smile”) or non-emotional (e.g., “table”). If a word was white, they had to press one of two keys to categorize it as emotional or non-emotional. If a word was blue or red, they had to press one of two keys to categorize it as blue or red.4 So, white words had to be classified by meaning, and blue or red words had to be classified by color. Because this task requires keeping a lot of separate information and categories in your head, it takes a good deal of executive control. People who categorized more words correctly were considered higher in executive control.
Next came the sacrifice task. People were shown two similar pictures and were asked to find the difference between them, just like in children’s games. If they found the difference, they could win their partner a prize. The twist was that the two pictures were identical (sneaky researchers). So the participants could either persist for a long time at this frustrating challenge, or they could give up but not win a prize for their partners. Those who spent more time looking were given higher scores for sacrifice (because they pushed on through the impossible task just to benefit their partners).
In their second study, the researchers brought in couples together. Couple members also filled out commitment surveys, but this time did a different executive control activity. They were shown 45 letters on a screen, one at a time. For every letter they saw, they had to press one of two buttons indicating whether that letter was the same or different from the letter they saw two letters ago (again, a lot to keep in you head!).5
Then, to measure sacrifice, one partner was randomly chosen to do a frustrating task, while the other could watch entertaining videos. The frustrating task required typing out random strings of text for as long as possible (“7seww9vYLzIvv9N2Vyg”). They were told they could stop whenever they wanted, but then their partner would have to stop watching the fun videos and take over. Because there would be obvious consequences to their partner if they stopped doing the frustrating task (i.e., the partner would have to take over), the sacrifice here was even more meaningful than in the previous study (where stopping the task only meant the partner didn’t win anything). The more text strings the participant typed out, the higher their sacrifice score.
In both studies, the researchers found that partners who had greater executive control sacrificed more. They searched longer for the difference between the identical pictures and they typed out more letter strings. Partners who reported more commitment on the surveys also sacrificed more, but executive control was more strongly related to their sacrificing behaviors.
Overall, these studies showed that commitment to a partner isn’t always enough on its own to promote sacrifice, especially when the sacrifice requires considerable time and effort. While sometimes it seems like we can effortlessly and automatically meet our partners’ needs, there are other times when we have to exert some extra mental effort to get past our own self-serving desires. So, even if it might take a little extra work to abandon your Netflix cue, the effort you put in to helping your partner could pay off big time for you both.
If you’d like to learn more about our book, please click here (or download it here). Interested in learning more about relationships? Click here for other topics on Science of Relationships. Like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter to get our articles delivered directly to your NewsFeed.
1Van Lange, P. A. M., Rusbult, C. E., Drigotas, S. M., Arriaga, X. B., Witcher, B. S., & Cox, C. L. (1997). Willingness to sacrifice in close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 72, 1373-1395.
2Borkowski, J. G., & Burke, J. E. (1996). Theories, models, and measurements of executive functioning: An information processing perspective. In G. R. Lyon & N. A. Krasnegor (Eds.), Attention, memory, and executive function (pp. 235-261). Baltimore, MD: Brookes.
3Pronk, T. M., & Karremans, J. C. (2014). Does executive control relate to sacrificial behavior during conflicts of interest? Personal Relationships, 21, 168-175.
4De Houwer, J. (2003). The extrinsic affective Simon task. Experimental Psychology, 50, 77-85.
5Jonides, J., Schumacher, E. H., Smith, E. E., Lauber, E. J., Awh, J., Minoshima, S., & Koeppe, R. A. (1997). Verbal working memory load affects regional brain activation as measured by PET. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 9, 163-103.
Jeff Bowen – Science of Relationships articles
Jeff’s research examines the role of self-control in relationship maintenance, and how mental representations of romantic partners are influenced by psychological distance. Jeff explores these processes during interactions that are diagnostic of a relationship – conflict negotiation, social support provision, encounters with attractive alternatives, etc. He is particularly interested in how these phenomena manifest in the implicit signals partners send during interpersonal interaction, including mimicry, word choice, and gaze.