January 13, 2010
Self Control Is Contagious?

Parents who try very hard to buy into school districts that feature better performing and better behaved children probably appreciate a truth about human nature. People are influenced by the extent of self control exercised by others around them.

Athens, Ga. – Before patting yourself on the back for resisting that cookie or kicking yourself for giving in to temptation, look around. A new University of Georgia study has revealed that self-control—or the lack thereof—is contagious.

In a just-published series of studies involving hundreds of volunteers, researchers have found that watching or even thinking about someone with good self-control makes others more likely exert self-control. The researchers found that the opposite holds, too, so that people with bad self-control influence others negatively. The effect is so powerful, in fact, that seeing the name of someone with good or bad self-control flashing on a screen for just 10 milliseconds changed the behavior of volunteers.

“The take home message of this study is that picking social influences that are positive can improve your self-control,” said lead author Michelle vanDellen, a visiting assistant professor in the UGA department of psychology. “And by exhibiting self-control, you’re helping others around you do the same.”

The press release describes 5 experiments the researchers conducted. Here are the first two:

In the first study, the researchers randomly assigned 36 volunteers to think about a friend with either good or bad self-control. Those that thought about a friend with good self-control persisted longer on a handgrip task commonly used to measure self-control, while the opposite held true for those who were asked to think about a friend with bad self-control.

In the second study, 71 volunteers watched others exert self-control by choosing a carrot from a plate in front of them instead of a cookie from a nearby plate, while others watched people eat the cookies instead of the carrots. The volunteers had no interaction with the tasters other than watching them, yet their performance was altered on a later test of self-control depending on who they were randomly assigned to watch.

Maybe people who are on diets need to view a little video on their cell phone several times a day showing someone else bypassing cookies to eat vegetables. Create an environment (which can be at least partially virtual) around yourself showing other people doing what you want yourself to do.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2010 January 13 10:57 PM  Brain Conditioning

Mthson said at January 14, 2010 1:10 AM:

I think we could say that behavioral genes and environmental reminders such as a daily video both function as nudges. Our genes constantly nudge our behavior in certain directions, but changing the signals that are present in our environment can counter those genetic nudges.

random said at January 14, 2010 7:52 AM:

Translation: "Study shows that peer pressure affects people." In other news, water is wet and fire is hot...

LarryD said at January 14, 2010 11:00 AM:

Well, this isn't peer pressure as I understand the term. It's more following the example that others set.

And popular wisdom has understood this for a long time, role models, "lead by example", etc.

Bob Badour said at January 14, 2010 1:21 PM:

We're apes. We ape. ... Surprise!

LAG said at January 15, 2010 7:08 AM:

Two things immediately came to mind: 1) my mother was right to tell me to pick good friends (thanks friends!); 2) this explains the danger of living in our hedonistic society.

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