We all desire self-control — the resolve to skip happy hour and go to the gym instead, to finish a report before checking Facebook, to say no to the last piece of chocolate cake. Though many struggle to resist those temptations, new research suggests that people with low self-control prefer and depend on people with high self-control, possibly as a way to make up for the skills they themselves lack.
This research, conducted by psychological scientists Catherine Shea, Gráinne Fitzsimons, and Erin Davisson of Duke University, is published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
“We all know how much effort it takes to overcome temptation,” says Shea, lead author of the study and a doctoral student in Fitzsimons’s lab. “People with low self-control could relieve a lot of their self-control struggles by being with an individual who helps them.”
To test this prediction, Shea and her colleagues conducted two lab-based studies and one study with real-life romantic partners.
In the first study, participants were asked to watch a video. The researchers experimentally manipulated participants’ self-control by asking one group to avoid reading words that flashed up on the screen during the video (depleting their self-control), 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-control behavior, one who demonstrated high self-control behavior, and one who demonstrated both high and low self-control behaviors. The participants rated the office managers on their leadership abilities.
The results were clear: When people were temporarily depleted of their self-control, they rated the manager who had high self-control more positively than the two other managers. That is, these participants seemed to compensate for the self-control they lacked by valuing it in others.
A second study confirmed these results: People who demonstrated low trait self-control on a standard self-control task also showed a preference for the manager with high self-control.
In the third study, the researchers tested their hypothesis using survey data from 136 romantic couples.
Again, the data confirmed the hypothesis: Individuals who reported having low-self control also reported greater dependence on their partner if the partner happened to have high self-control.
These results show that the phenomenon isn’t just lab-based, it also extends to real-world relationships.
“Self-control, by its name and definition, is a ‘self’ process — something that we do alone, as individuals,” observes Shea. “Yet, when we order food on a menu or go to work, we’re often surrounded by other people.”
The findings are particularly interesting because previous research has typically focused on the downsides of low self-control, such as poorer academic achievement and health outcomes. But 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,” says Shea.
This research was supported in part by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada.