‘It’s the Thought That Counts’

The power of good intentions is vindicated

“The way we read another persons intentions changes our physical experience of the world,” says University of Marlyland Assistant Professor Kurt Gray, author of “The Power of Good Intentions,” newly published online ahead of print in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science (click here for the abstract).

“The results confirm that good intentions—even misguided ones—can soothe pain, increase pleasure, and make things taste better,” the study concludes. It describes the ability of benevolence to improve physical experience as a “vindication for the power of good.”

Pain, Pleasure, and Taste

The power of good intentions to shape physical experience was demonstrated in three separate experiments.


Three groups of participants received identical electric shocks at the hand of a partner. 

1. “Accidental” condition: participants thought they were being shocked without their partner’s awareness.
2. “Malicious” condition: participants thought they were being shocked on purpose, for no good reason.
3. “Benevolent” condition: partipants also thought they were being shocked on purpose, but because another person was trying to help them win money.

The result: Participants in the “benevolent” group experienced significantly less pain than both the “malicious” and “accident” participants.


People sat on an electric massage pad in an easy chair which was repeatedly turned on—either by an indifferent computer or a caring partner.

The result: Although the massages were identical, Gray found that partner massages caused significantly more pleasure than those administered by a computer.


Subjects were given candy in a package with a note attached.

For the benevolent group, the note read: “I picked this just for you. Hope it makes you happy.
The non-benevolent (indifferent) version read: “Whatever. I just don’t care. I just picked it randomly.”

The result: The candy not only tasted better to the benevolent group, but it also tasted significantly sweeter. “Perceived benevolence not only improves the experience of pain and pleasure, but can also make things taste better,” the study concludes.


Medicine, relationships, business—the applications of positive intentions is widespread. “To the extent that we view others as benevolent instead of malicious, the harms they inflict upon us should hurt less, and the good things they do for us should cause more pleasure,” the paper concludes. “Stolen parking places cut less deep and home-cooked meals taste better when we think well of others.”

Image: Attribution Some rights reserved by digitizedchaos


Category: Psych


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