The Frontal Cortex

Self-Control and Peer Groups

For the most part, self-control is seen as an individual trait, a measure of personal discipline. If you lack self-control, then it’s your own fault, a character flaw built into the brain.

However, according to a new study by Michelle vanDellen, a psychologist at the University of Georgia, self-control contains a large social component; the ability to resist temptation is contagious. The paper consists of five clever studies, each of which demonstrates the influence of our peer group on our self-control decisions. For instance, in one study 71 undergraduates watched a stranger exert self-control by choosing a carrot instead of a cookie, while others watched people eat the cookie instead of the carrot. That’s all that happened: the volunteers had no other interaction with the eaters. Nevertheless, the performance of the subjects was significantly altered on a subsequent test of self-control. People who watched the carrot-eaters had more discipline than those who watched the cookie-eaters.

What accounts for this contagion of discipline? One possibility, of course, is that watching someone eat a cookie makes us think about the deliciousness of cookies. In other words, we’re primed to crave a reward, since we just saw a reward get consumed. vanDellen, however, argues that the spread of self-control is mostly driven by the “accessibility” of thoughts about self-control. When we see someone resist the cookie, we’re cognitively inspired, and temporarily aware that resistance is possible. We don’t have to surrender to impulse.

Consider the last experiment described in the paper. In this study of 117 subjects, those who were randomly assigned to write about friends with good self-control were faster than a control group at identifying words related to self-control, such as “achieve,” “discipline” and “effort”. This suggests that thinking about self-control – or watching it happen – makes us more attuned to its benefits. We think about our waistline and calories, and not just chocolate-chips.

The contagiousness of self-control has important consequences. For one thing, it helps explain why Dominos, Taco Bell and McDonald’s spend so much money on television ads. Their commercials are testimonials for indulgence – they show people happily consuming thousands of calories – and so that makes us less likely to resist. Why munch on carrots when a large pepperoni pizza is only a phone call away?

This study also begins to reveal the ways in which culture can impact character. Kids who grow up surrounded by rituals of discipline – they watch people counter their impulses all the time – have a very different sense of their own potential. They don’t have to eat the cookie because they’ve watched their parents and peers eat the carrot. This is an implicit kind of knowledge – it’s not something you can measure on a multiple-choice test – and yet it has profound implications for our success in the real world.

Last year, I wrote about this idea in the New Yorker:

Mischel is also preparing a large-scale study involving hundreds of schoolchildren in Philadelphia, Seattle, and New York City to see if self-control skills can be taught. Although he previously showed that children did much better on the marshmallow task after being taught a few simple “mental transformations,” such as pretending the marshmallow was a cloud, it remains unclear if these new skills persist over the long term. In other words, do the tricks work only during the experiment or do the children learn to apply them at home, when deciding between homework and television?

Angela Lee Duckworth, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, is leading the program. She first grew interested in the subject after working as a high-school math teacher. “For the most part, it was an incredibly frustrating experience,” she says. “I gradually became convinced that trying to teach a teen-ager algebra when they don’t have self-control is a pretty futile exercise.” And so, at the age of thirty-two, Duckworth decided to become a psychologist. One of her main research projects looked at the relationship between self-control and grade-point average. She found that the ability to delay gratification–eighth graders were given a choice between a dollar right away or two dollars the following week–was a far better predictor of academic performance than I.Q. She said that her study shows that “intelligence is really important, but it’s still not as important as self-control.”

For the past few months, the researchers have been conducting pilot studies in the classroom as they try to figure out the most effective way to introduce complex psychological concepts to young children. Because the study will focus on students between the ages of four and eight, the classroom lessons will rely heavily on peer modelling, such as showing kindergartners a video of a child successfully distracting herself during the marshmallow task.

The point is that self-improvement isn’t impossible, and that changing the habits of one kid just might help change a classroom. Nobody is an island.

Comments

  1. #1 parisbreakfast
    January 27, 2010

    The New Yorker article hit home in a big way for me.
    I wrote about it on my blog
    http://parisbreakfasts.blogspot.com/2009/05/now-or-later.html
    Self-control will always be an issue when you hang around French pastries…
    choices, choices

  2. #2 Mike Olson
    January 27, 2010

    Thanks for putting this into the blogosphere. I’m curious as to the potential for a follow up study. Consider this: Divide subjects into one of five exposure groups. a) control group. b) exposed to extremely obese person eating carrot. c) exposed to very fit person eating carrot. d) exposed to obese person eating cookie. f) exposed to fit person eating cookie. There are other dynamics which could be measured as well. Such as social group or age group the eater is attached to… Or how “cool” is the eater perceived by those watching the eating. This is good information but to truly teach self control I’m guessing there is much more to it than simply watching one person or another eating the carrot. Social factors surrounding the object of self control is very important. Smoking is a great example of this…for decades an unhealthy habit was the epitome of cool. But, after an intensive ad campaign making it uncool…the numbers drop through the floor.

  3. #3 William
    January 27, 2010

    A single cookie? That’s supposed to be a “temptation”? A better study would go beyond the margin (for example, offering an entire row of cookies, or a whole pizza) or something with a stronger and more obvious downside (for example, a large beer.)

    In other words, doesn’t a study about resisting temptation require something significant enough to bother resisting?

    (Sincerely,
    The cookie industry)

  4. #4 Steve D
    January 27, 2010

    This sort of stuff reinforces my belief that the social sciences are on a par with creationism and homeopathy. Picking a dollar now versus two next week is significant? Make it $500 now or $1000 next week and you might have something. I agree that ability to defer gratification is probably more important than raw IQ – I’ve met too many bright people with no self control – but none of these experiments are meaningful.

  5. #5 anon
    January 27, 2010

    @3 At my college I often see advertisements for studies needing subjects who are dieting or trying to lose weight. For this group a single cookie is probably a temptation worth resisting. Presumably the experimenters did something like this to screen out students like me, who might rationally choose the cookie to avoid having to pay for the same number of calories later.

  6. #6 curiousgeorgie
    January 28, 2010

    Hey Jonah, just thought you might want to know, you’re one of the 30 most astounding science and tech geeks:
    http://www.geekosystem.com/power-grid/30+Astounding+Science+and+Tech+Geeks/

    And peer groups definitely matter. When at least two of my roommates aren’t doing work, none of us end up doing work (unless it’s due the next day). Luckily, it also tends to work the other way around.

  7. #7 anon2
    January 28, 2010

    In response to Steve D – while picking a dollar now rather than waiting for a week to get two might not seem like a significant finding, what is significant is when this pattern of repeated impulsive choices continues over time. People discount the value of future outcomes of their behavior, the person who continually eats a small dessert after each meal, who has one more drink before leaving the bar, or decides they can use drugs one more time before quitting. Studies of impulsive decision making have a strong quantitative background, and even results that seem small can have huge consequences when they are conceptualized as patterns of behavior over time (see Rachlin, 2000 – Science of Self-Control).

  8. #8 meryl
    January 30, 2010

    Another angle is :

    The child may have an ability to consider the consequences of the choices, compare these, and then make an INTELLIGENT choice after that.

    An example :

    If I eat the cookie now, Mommy may not be happy with me. but if I eat the cookie now, i will be gratified now. But this means that the gratification may not be as ‘optimal’ since I have to face the consequence of Mommy not being pleased with me.

    But if I wait, Mommy will be happy with me, and I STILL can eat the cookie. So it is a win-win for all. I just have to wait. Waiting is a problem for me, but I can use self control as a tool* to solve this problem for me.

    *The expressions of self control can be anything that will distract the child from thinking of waiting, from singing a tune, to tap dancing, to running around, to constantly asking Mommy when he will get the cookie, to re-negotiating with Mommy on duration of waiting time, to simply sit and do nothing until the condition of the waiting time is met.

    Surely you need some kind of intelligence to figure this logic out? yes? no?

    In this example, self control is a tool that the child uses from an intelligent processing of the choices and consequences presented to him, in order to make an intelligent choice that will yield the optimal gratification for him (that is to say, self control is a solution tool to his problem of waiting in order that he can obtain the most optimal result for his situation).

    Which then loops back to the studies that children who have higher self control seem to average better at school grades. Perhaps intelligence does play a part?

    Is it likely there are children who are able to process the path to optimal gratification by using self control, while there are those who cannot seem to process that path?

    Could this have any relevance to the economist’ theory of Optimising behaviour? If all humans are optimisation seeking, then some are obviously better at it than others. Why? If self control is a tool in this optimisation seeking behaviour, what is the role of intelligence in this processing? EQ? IQ?

    Wondering on…

    Enjoy enjoy

  9. #9 Jose L
    January 31, 2010

    I even wonder if the concept of “self-control” is misleading, since people seldom house unitary selves with the same priorities at all times. E.g., I have an inner hedonist that genuinely values the pleasure of the cookie more than the health benefits of the carrot. So it seems like seeing others make ‘disciplined’ choices inspires or bring to mind ‘disciplined’ values more than it reawakens some inner self. An potential test of my provisional “values-triggering” account would be to see if people would still choose the carrot more often if they saw an outgroup member (say, a fan of a rival football team) take a carrot.

  10. #10 john
    January 31, 2010

    Hi,self control is part of self improvement,you may wish to check the following site
    http://masterthesuccessSecrets.com
    You may find it beneficial.

  11. #11 rijkswaanvijand
    February 2, 2010

    Hi(gh on crack) John, thanks for the link!
    Interesting studie.. The writing experiment seems a total fallacy though, since writing about self control would activate all kinds of subliminal semantic associations which could easily account for the noticed effect.

  12. #12 Janis
    February 4, 2010

    Dumb question, but … what if you just like carrots?

  13. #13 bitefight cheats
    February 11, 2010

    In response to Steve D – while picking a dollar now rather than waiting for a week to get two might not seem like a significant finding, what is significant is when this pattern of repeated impulsive choices continues over time. People discount the value of future outcomes of their behavior, the person who continually eats a small dessert after each meal, who has one more drink before leaving the bar, or decides they can use drugs one more time before quitting. Studies of impulsive decision making have a strong quantitative background, and even results that seem small can have huge consequences when they are conceptualized as patterns of behavior over time (see Rachlin, 2000 – Science of Self-Control).

  14. #14 Maureen
    March 2, 2010

    That such a “large scale” study was done to show that peers with self-control can help individuals maintain self-control must be very amusing to millions of members of Alcoholics Anonymous, who have been using this principle to try and stay sober for seventy years. As for how long the acquired self-control lasts, many alcoholics with long-term sobriety say they continue to need regular AA meetings even after decades of sobriety. It is sad how little progress has been made in this field by the professionals.

  15. #15 Bursa Haber
    April 13, 2010

    who has one more drink before leaving the bar, or decides they can use drugs one more time before quitting. Studies of impulsive decision making have a strong quantitative

  16. Your post has made me think about an argument from another context. This is completely rare when I change my idea about such arguments but it looks that you’ve done it. The day has begin with something new! Thank you!

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