The Ancestor Effect: Thinking about our roots boosts intellect and confidence

We all know that giving thanks is something we “should” be doing. But recently a clinical study reported that thinking positively about our family roots boosts emotional confidence and even intelligence.

The 2010 study, published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, comprised four studies that pitted those who think about their roots versus those who don’t before taking a battery of problem solving and intelligence tests.

In the first study, the subjects consisted of two experimental groups and a control. A third of the subjects were instructed to think about their deep roots from the 15th century, another third to think about their great grandparents, and the control group did no such preparation.

What were the subjects specifically asked to think about? They were told to imagine their ancestors, how they lived, their professions and their families, the trials they faced, and what these ancestors would tell them if they were around today.

Results indicated that both groups that looked back performed significantly better on the problem-solving test than the control.

The second study by the same research group then extended these findings with a less obvious direction: by having the experimental group construct a family tree before taking a battery of intelligence tests. In this way, the experimental group was not told exactly what to think, but still had to consider their ancestors to complete the activity.

Again, the group that meditated upon their roots performed better on the test scores. They also scored higher on a test of “perceived life control.” In other words, those who considered their pasts said they felt more control over their life, career, and ability to best adversaries than those who did not.

The group was still not satisfied with the conclusions. What is this ancestor effect? How does “ancestral salience” work? The researchers, comprised of social psychologists from Germany and Austria, conducted a third study to test if thinking about living ancestral relatives (grandparents and great grandparents) versus distant ancestors made a difference. The test scores of this group were compared to a control group that was instructed to think about a close friend who is still living.

This time, both family groups outperformed the friends group, but with no significant difference between the deep ancestral groups and the living ancestral groups. So the effect is not simply due to thinking about people you like and who happen to be alive.

In a final study, the group tested this “likability” factor within the ancestral groups. Subjects were instructed to either focus on negative or positive aspects of their ancestors, compared with a control group that did no meditations before a battery of tests. Again, both ancestral groups outperformed the control.

So even if we don’t perceive to like our ancestors, thinking about them still leads to a mental state that boosts intellectual performance and decision-making.

Tapping into the Ancestor Effect

So keep your ancestors close at hand. Every day, think about the people who are responsible for putting you on the planet. Consider their hard work throughout the ages, their resilience in tough times, and their ingenuity.

Make a family tree, and research your roots.

Even a simple five-minute meditation in the beginning of the day can instill confidence that spills over into your decision making and your ability to deal with the problems that arise today.

Making space in your home can focus this daily meditation and remind you of your roots when you go about your daily life. Find a photograph of a family member who has passed on and who you particularly admire. Frame it and keep it visible in a part of the house you see every day. Make it a daily ritual to give thanks by spending a moment looking at this photograph or some other object from the past. Even better, set up a shelf for ancestral remembrances and spend a minute a day looking upon it and thinking of those who came before.

Let the blessing go back in time, and fuel their strength, too. They are smiling upon us and giving us courage, even the nasty ones.

[1] Fischer, P., Sauer, A., Vogrincic, C., and Weisweiler, S. (2010). The ancestor effect: Thinking about our genetic origin enhances intellectual performance. European Journal of Social Psychology. 41 (1), 11-16.

About the Author:

Ryan's recent dream research focuses on lucid dreaming, sacred sites, the anthropology of dreaming, and sleep paralysis. DreamStudies.org

32 Comments

  1. Jodine Grundy November 16, 2011 at 6:46 pm - Reply

    Wonderful article Ryan! I am certainly aware of the studies showing positive effects of social support and even imagining social support. I work with my clients to imagine and invite ancestors into presence for healing and help quite effectively. But I’m pleased to learn of these studies and this special effect boosting intelligence and problem solving through meditation on ancestors.
    Thanks. Jody Grundy

  2. Bobbie Ann Pimm November 17, 2011 at 7:57 pm - Reply

    An absolutely FASCINATING article!!!

    • Ryan November 21, 2011 at 8:00 pm - Reply

      thanks Bobbie!

  3. Colleen Thomas November 17, 2011 at 10:51 pm - Reply

    Of course those who had connected with their Ancestors did better on the problem solving: their Ancestors were present and helping them!

    • Amy November 19, 2011 at 2:16 pm - Reply

      That’s what I thought! :)

    • Ryan November 21, 2011 at 8:02 pm - Reply

      well put. it’s funny that we need “science” to give legitimacy to these things we already know intuitively. but I am delighted to see researchers take this important form of meditation seriously.

  4. Brenda November 18, 2011 at 12:11 pm - Reply

    Thanks, Ryan! Very helpful for me personally. I am coming up on my 60th birthday, and after a long journey away from my home and all that I was taught to believe, I have circled back by honoring the spiritual person I am. I am my roots, but with an ironic twist. LOL! I’ve found that I was born into very rich spiritual soil. – Dogma and fundamentalism – not for me! However, it did give me something to push against. I have found an even richer spiritual community among dreamers. Good to know that even if you don’t particularly like your roots you still retain the strength/advantages from meditation on them.

    • Amy November 19, 2011 at 2:19 pm - Reply

      Brenda, I have a similar past. My roots are filled with Pilgrims – people who let their homeland for religious reasons, Quakers, lay people and fundamentalists. I may even be related to the last European martyr! Fascinating to think that we (you and I) have shifted so completely from our ancestral past, but also how similar we are in our to our ancestors’ desire to connect with Spirit.

      • Ryan November 21, 2011 at 8:00 pm - Reply

        thanks Brenda. I am very grateful for the irony I’ve encountered in my path too. sometimes, the joke’s on us… and it’s good to laugh. :)

  5. hadron November 22, 2011 at 5:47 am - Reply

    Nice article and good to learn that science is discovering and acknowledging these aspects of our lives. Worshiping ancestors and performing special rituals on certain astrologically auspicious days to appease them have been part of many Eastern religions like Hinduism for centuries.

  6. Lois M HURD November 29, 2011 at 12:41 pm - Reply

    I wonder if you are related to my family. Have been working on my HURD history for many years. Decended from John Hurd b about 1613 Somerset, UK who came to American with brother Adam b 1607 and settled at Windsor and then Stratford, CT 1639. Would like more data from the UK. Willing to share what I have found if you are interested. I currently live in Florida, USA but native of Connecticut, USA

    • Ryan November 29, 2011 at 7:33 pm - Reply

      Dear Lois,

      We are probably not related because my grandfather took on the Hurd name when he was adopted as a baby by his aunt and uncle. My true paternal line is Dungan, which is my middle name. Great to meet you however!

  7. Bobbi December 5, 2011 at 7:32 pm - Reply

    I saw this article as a link on my friends Facebook and had to read due to most always being interested in their topics of discussion. I have to say this was no let down! I always try to encourage my friends and family to remember and cherish their ancestors and to study their lieniag and now I have a great finding to prove to them why they should

  8. joan December 6, 2011 at 12:08 pm - Reply

    I think this research may only be measuring the effects of focusing one’s attention on something–could be anything–and the amount of focus required for a task. I haven’t read the original articles, so I don’t know that it is flawed. It seems that it may be, given what you report in the article

    While I don’t need this research to know that considering my ancestors has been useful to me and enhanced my life, and even if the research is flawed I’m happy to see that some researchers are interested in the questions, and that their work is published, at least making it known that there are enough of us who think these things matter to our lives.

  9. Ingrid Kincaid December 6, 2011 at 10:27 pm - Reply

    Yes, thank you Ryan. I work with the runes, northern European as well as Celtic spirituality and speak passionately to my students about remember our ancestors and our roots. And sometimes we need to go farther back than to those who immigrated to the US.
    Too bad it takes some ‘official’ study to remind us but for some, that is the only way the will open to the knowing of it.
    Ingrid, The Rune Woman

  10. The Ancestor EffectStigmaBot December 9, 2011 at 8:16 pm - Reply

    [...] so blog topics will expected be brief and to a point, so interjection to Rev. Vinnie Russo for pity this link today! It’s a discerning review and not bogged down with lots of [...]

  11. Jaiya Alamia December 14, 2011 at 7:49 am - Reply

    These studies reflect ancient wisdom and indigenous knowledge around the world. As a Classical Feng Shui practitioner, I have come to understand the power of thinking about and honoring our ancestors in our daily lives. The more we learn about those who came before, and the deeper our relationship with them, the more insight we gain into our own lives. Thank you for sharing this research!
    ~ Jaiya Alamia

    • Larry Schramm January 24, 2012 at 2:51 pm - Reply

      Thank you for the article. I practice a degree of ancestor worship and keep an ancestor alter where I give coffee to them. It is nice to see research that tends to reinforce my own practice.

      • Ryan January 24, 2012 at 7:10 pm - Reply

        Thanks Larry! I set up a small altar at our new house over the holidays and it’s really made this place into a home.

  12. Tracking the Ancestors | Heart Tracks December 19, 2011 at 6:15 pm - Reply

    [...] recently read a wonderful article entitled ‘The Ancestor Effect: Thinking About our Roots Boosts Intellect and Confidence‘ and I was so inspired that I felt called to share the importance of the Ancestors to my [...]

  13. Larry Schramm January 24, 2012 at 2:52 pm - Reply

    Oops, I mean an ancestor altar, not alter. It is wise not to trust too much to spell check even if it is on my pea sea.

  14. Debra May 16, 2012 at 12:43 pm - Reply

    I think parents that pass on family history are also more likely to spend time talking to their children and actively teaching them. On neither side of my family was the family history discussed and both parents weren’t really taught positive skills for survival as an adult. I’ve spent a good portion of my life trying to fix myself. After my father died a key step in the process was beginning the family history.

  15. Tejas Angel May 18, 2012 at 5:27 am - Reply

    As a Search Angel and reunion coordinator, I help people separated by adoption to reconnect. The discussion that it did not matter if the focus was on negative or positive aspects was interesting. That goes along with the philosophy “it doesnt matter what you find, it matters that you find”. Would be interesting to see adoptees results when focusing on adoptive families vs first families.

  16. James LaForest August 5, 2012 at 4:34 am - Reply

    This is a very thought-provoking article and I would say that it very much confirms my experience in researching family history over 30 years. On the one hand my research I believe was a playing out of my personality, but it has also deeply enriched my sense of well-being, my connectedness and my sense of history.

  17. Valerie Bowman August 23, 2012 at 10:14 pm - Reply

    This is fascinating. I have long been intrigued and feel close to my ancestors, particularly a few of them. It’s wonderful to read this article and now I will do even more in the honoring of them. Thank you and it was great seeing you at the conference with Fariba!

  18. [...] Boosts self-confidence Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. ← General Sources [...]

  19. [...] keep me grounded. Thinking about ancestry, after all, has some clinically noted benefits, including boosting intelligence, confidence and self-esteem. This is the Ancestor [...]

  20. Chuck Cogliandro August 13, 2013 at 6:18 am - Reply

    Thank you for this article, and for sharing the research. The healing methods of Family Constellations, as developed by Bert Hellinger and others, have been working with some of these themes for over 30 years. They are well-known throughout Europe and South America and are gaining recognition more widely in the US.

    I presence my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents each morning before me at the end of my meditation. I had to learn the names of my great grandparents, which was a healing journey in itself. I say their full names, and have parent standing behind child, generations in order going back. Then I bow to them in gratitude. The work I have done in studying Family Constellations has created new openings, and more understanding and compassion in my family of origin. My wife and I have studied this method together and it has deepened our respect for the different family loyalties we bring to our partnership. Here is another article about how resilience is created more strongly for people who know their family histories: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/17/fashion/the-family-stories-that-bind-us-this-life.html?emc=eta1

    peace, Chuck Cogliandro Atlanta, GA

  21. Maxine Manning September 4, 2013 at 9:08 am - Reply

    Would like to know more. Thank you.

  22. Jerry Bauer February 4, 2014 at 8:05 am - Reply

    We all stand on the shoulders of our ancestors.

  23. Tapuaiga Samoa February 23, 2014 at 12:14 pm - Reply

    I am a Pacific Islander revisiting and resurrecting our Pagan Folk Religion of the past. As a family orientated people, this is soooo Polynesian it’s chilling. Appreciate the article.

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