Having trouble disciplining yourself to hit the gym rather than joining colleagues for happy hour? Unable to stop chatting with your friend in the next cubicle even though a deadline is looming?
Many of us struggle to resist temptations—even fighting to keep from checking Facebook when we’re trying to finish a report to the boss. The remedy may be developing close working relationships with people who exhibit a high degree of self-discipline, according to a recent study.
Psychological scientists Catherine Shea, Gráinne Fitzsimons, and Erin Davisson of Duke University hypothesized that people with low self-control prefer associating with others who have high self-control as a way of making up for skills they themselves lack. To test this prediction, they had participants watch a video. They experimentally manipulated the participants’ self-control by asking one group to avoid reading words that flashed on the screen during the video (taxing their self-control skills), while giving no such instructions to the other group.
Each participant then read a vignette about one of three office managers—one who demonstrated low self-c ontrol behavior, one who showed high self-control, and one who demonstrated both. The participants rated the office managers on their leadership skills.
The researchers found that people who were temporarily depleted of their self-control rated the manager who had high self-control more positively than the two other managers.
In a second study, people who demonstrated low self-control on a standard self-control task also showed a preference for the manager with high self-control.
In the third study, researchers tested their hypothesis using survey data from 136 romantic couples. Individuals who reported having low-self control also reported greater dependence on their partner if the partner happened to have high self-control.
This new research suggests that individuals who lack self-control may actually have a unique skill: the ability to pick up on self-control cues in others and use those cues to form adaptive relationships.
“What we have shown is that low self-control individuals seem to implicitly surround themselves with individuals who can help them overcome temptation — you get by with a little help from your friends,” Shea said.
The findings in this study appear in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.