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.”
People tend to mimic the behavior of those around them, and characteristics such as smoking, drug use and obesity tend to spread through social networks. But vanDellen’s study is thought to be the first to show that self-control is contagious across behaviors. That means that thinking about someone who exercises self-control by regularly exercising, for example, can make your more likely to stick with your financial goals, career goals or anything else that takes self-control on your part.
VanDellen’s findings, which are published in the early online edition of the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, are the result of five separate studies conducted over two years with study co-author Rick Hoyle at Duke University.