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.