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Cake for Breakfast: Why We Give In Under Pressure

You know that moment when you are on an important phone call and your child comes in to ask you a question, so you wave him or her away with an approving nod? Then afterward you realize that your child is eating cake in mid-afternoon, and you remind him or her – yet again – about interrupting while you are on the phone? There may just be a scientific reason for that.

A recent study published in Psychological Science found that when one member of a close friendship or relationship is under duress or distracted by a stressful situation, he or she is more likely to give in or to make sacrifices for a friend or loved one.

In times of stress, people are more likely to make impulsive decisions that promote the friendship or relationship. For example, they are more likely to go out with people they do not like (but whom their partners or friends like), or perform an embarrassing task on behalf of their loved one.

In the case of parents, this occasionally comes in the form of a huge sigh, followed by saying, “Fine, whatever. You can have it just this one time.”  Of course, I am just theorizing here. It’s not like I would know anything about that. I am certainly not the parent who inadvertently let her son have an excessive helping of ice cream last week because he approached me when I was on an important call. Nope. Not me.

While researchers have long suspected human behavior is driven by selfish impulses, this study tested the idea that in close relationships, people’s impulsive inclination is to be pro-social and to sacrifice for their partner, to pursue the interests of the partner or of the relationship at some costs for the self. People with lower self-control reported greater willingness to give in to those with whom they are closest.

So when it comes to the people we care most about, we are willing to sacrifice more for them when we are distracted by a stressor. Just food for thought for the next time you ask your partner to run an errand on the way home from a business luncheon, or when your child asks you for cake while you are on the phone with a client. You’re welcome.

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