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

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.


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

    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

    An absolutely FASCINATING article!!!

    • Ryan November 21, 2011 at 8:00 pm

      thanks Bobbie!

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

    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

      That’s what I thought! :)

    • Ryan November 21, 2011 at 8:02 pm

      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

    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

      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

        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

    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

    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

      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

    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

    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

    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

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