Weak-willed people may outsource self-control

Woman with choice of foods
We have shown that low self-control individuals are naturally attracted to high self-control others. To a greater extent, we could outsource our decisions to a high self-control person – a person who is great at resisting temptation – so we don’t even have to engage in self-control ourselves.
Dr Catherine Shea
It can be difficult to resist the temptation to avoid going to the gym, to say yes to that delicious but calorific dessert, or to choose a night out over finishing a report for work, but a study from Duke University researchers suggests that people will low levels of self-control may have an ingenious strategy to make up for what they lack.

The paper, which appeared earlier this month in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, contends that individuals with low self-control prefer to be around people with high self-control as a means of relieving their self-control struggles.

The research was undertaken by lead author Dr Catherine Shea, along with graduate student Erin Davisson, under the supervision of Professor Gráinne Fitzsimons in Duke’s Motivation and Social Cognition (MaSC) Lab, which is part of The Fuqua School of Business. Dr Shea shared her thoughts with ScienceOmega.com on the rather surprising effect that they discovered and what the implications may be for social relationships.

She and her colleagues conducted the investigation because they were interested in the adaptive behaviour of individuals when forming social bonds. The study attempted to answer the question of whether we strategically pair up with individuals who have the potential to make us better at achieving our goals and improve our well-being.

"We believe that self-control is an important domain in which to examine this process because it is something that we all struggle with from time-to-time but which we need to exert on a daily basis in order to achieve what we want out of life, be it a promotion or a healthy weight," Dr Shea started. "We all know how much effort it takes to overcome temptation, like saying ‘no’ to happy hour and going to the gym instead. People with low self-control could relieve a lot of their self-control struggles by being with an individual who helps them."


Doomed for bad outcomes?
 

According to Dr Shea, the effect they observed had not been hinted at in previous studies, which have mainly focused on the negative aspects of low self-control. In fact, she suggested, people may have guessed that the opposite would be closer to reality – that high self-control individuals would form relationships on the basis of strong self-control to help themselves even further.

"Research has predominantly painted individuals low in self-control as doomed for bad outcomes, whereas high self-control individuals have predominantly been seen to reap the benefits," Dr Shea said. "Indeed, when studying self-control solely as an individual process, this appears to be the case. However, we often engage in self-control restraint in social situations and our research would suggest that low self-control individuals are better able to capture positive social influences on self-control."

Dr Shea and her colleagues at Duke first carried out two lab-based studies to test the hypothesis that low self-control individuals could benefit from the company of people with greater levels of self-control.

"The first two experiments focused on replication, essentially," she remarked. "Since this was such an unexpected finding, we wanted to make sure that we could replicate the effect, but we did not do the same experiment twice."

The initial experiment illustrated the effect in what psychological scientists call ‘state’ self-control. State self-control is how much self-control individuals have in a given moment, regardless of their overall self-control levels. The participants temporarily had their self-control depleted by watching a video during which they were asked to ignore a set of words flashing up on the screen. A control group were not given any specific instructions. 

"The act of ignoring these words takes a lot of self-control, putting participants at a momentary deficit," explained Dr Shea. "Those participants temporarily low in self-control preferred high self-control managers versus medium and low self-control managers; participants with their self-control intact showed no such preference."

The findings were replicated with a behavioural measure of self-control in the second study, but both were laboratory studies and thus open to the criticism that the researchers had manipulated self-control in the target (the ‘managers’) that the participants were asked to evaluate.


A strategic choice
 

"To further replicate our results, and to increase generalisability, we looked at 136 romantic couples," Dr Shea related. "Here we had both partners rate their own self-control, and then how committed they were to their romantic partner. This data allows us to conclude that this is a process that actually occurs in the real world, and that there is something about low self-control individuals that makes them strategic in choosing their partners."

The authors describe this phenomenon as an implicit process – one that happens without our realising it. The experimental studies were able to capture self-control outside of people’s conscious awareness, as in the second study, for instance. Self-control was measured in terms of the executive function of the brain by having participants say aloud the colour of the letters of words on a page, rather than the words themselves. In some trials, the colour of the letters matched the word, whereas in others there was a mismatch; ‘red’ written in red ink, for example, or ‘green’ written in red ink.

"Responses in the trials where the word and the colour of the ink do not match take longer because of the self-control effort needed to override the natural tendency to say the word rather than the colour of the letters," commented Dr Shea. "Most individuals would not link the ability to override this tendency with their preferences for interacting with specific individuals."

In the dataset of romantic couples, all self-control was self-reported, with participants responding to statements such as, ‘People would say I have iron self-discipline’, or ‘I have trouble concentrating’. These results still provided support for the hypothesis, but the empirical question of whether low self-control individuals navigate their dating lives by specifically seeking out partners with high self-control, or whether once they find someone with high self-control, they see the benefits and become very committed to their relationship is yet to be answered.

But how does the high self-control or strong will of others assert its influence on those with less discipline?

"We know from previous research that being reminded of high self-control others can boost our own self-control," Dr Shea responded. "For instance, if I am reminded of my mother, I will persist longer on an academic task, especially if my mother wants me to succeed in this area. Likewise, when I am reminded of a high self-control individual, I will choose healthier options.

"We have shown that low self-control individuals are naturally attracted to high self-control others. To a greater extent, we could outsource our decisions to a high self-control person – a person who is great at resisting temptation – so we don’t even have to engage in self-control ourselves. For instance, a low self-control individual could have their significant other be in charge of grocery shopping so that no unhealthy foods are purchased and brought into the house, reducing temptation-inducing situations." 


An adaptive pattern
 

Curiously, there is no evidence to suggest that high self-control individuals are naturally attracted to low self-control others.

"High self-control people are not using self-control cues in others when forming relationships," stated Dr Shea. "They rated managers equally, independently of their levels of self-control. They are committed to their romantic partners at the same levels regardless of their partner’s level of self-control." 

This exhibits an adaptive pattern that does not fit in with the typical binary characterisation of relationships as opposites attracting or birds of a feather flocking together (i.e. similarity attracting). It seems that those self-sufficient people with high self-control are missing out on the potential benefits to be drawn from the social networks that people with low self-control regularly look to for help.

"We are looking into these adaptive social processes in the context of specific self-control challenges, like achieving a work promotion, and how individuals build social networks – or larger groups of relationships – to nudge them towards achieving those specific goals," said Dr Shea. "We hope to expand our knowledge about how individuals build their social networks as an adaptive response to what they are striving to achieve."

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