It turns out our mothers were right about the importance of hanging out with the right people. A University of Georgia study has revealed that self-control – and the lack of it– is contagious.
Researchers found that watching or even thinking about someone with good self-control makes others more likely exert discipline. They found the opposite holds, too, so that people with bad self-control influence others negatively. The effect is so powerful, in fact, that seeing the name of someone with good or bad self-control flashing on a screen for just 10 milliseconds changed the behavior of volunteers.
There were a number of studies over several years. In one, volunteers watched others exert self-control by choosing a carrot from a plate in front of them instead of a cookie from a nearby plate, while others watched people eat the cookies instead of the carrots. The volunteers had no interaction with the tasters, yet their performance was altered on a later test depending on who they were randomly assigned to watch.
We know that people tend to mimic the behavior of those around them, and problems like smoking, drug use and obesity tend to spread through social networks. But this study is the first to show that self-control is also contagious. The bottom line: picking social influences that are positive can improve your self-control.