Self control may be contagious

by Psy-Kosh1 min read14th Jan 201037 comments

18

Personal Blog

Just saw this article on reddit and thought it would be relevant here: Self Control is Contagious, Study Finds

Apparently seeing other people exhibit self control or even just thinking of them tends to increase (or decrease if observing poor self control) one's own self control.

37 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 11:00 PM
New Comment

A previous study by Ackerman & colleagues (pdf) had a similar finding, but showed that you can also get the opposite effect, vicarious self-control depletion: imagining someone else exercising self-control can reduce your own level of self-control, just as engaging in self-control can deplete your resources for further acts of self-control.

They argued that you get vicarious depletion if you put yourself in the other person's shoes and take their perspective in imagining their act of self-control, but you get contagion if you just observe them exhibiting self-control. So I guess if you're watching tv for a self-control boost, don't choose a program where you get too wrapped up in identifying with the characters with willpower.

Thanks for the info and hrm... I would have thought imagining oneself doing it would almost act as "practice", rather than having the opposite effect. Oh well, and thanks, good info!

Over a longer time scale it might work as practice (just as engaging in self-control seems to build stronger self-control abilities over the long term), but the immediate effect looks like depletion.

Some of the experiments involved contagion effects from friends with high or low self-control. I wonder if we see the opposite effect when our enemies display these traits. It has previously been shown that when we see outsiders cheating, we cheat less, but when in-group members cheat, we cheat more.

That... is an interesting question. What happens when we explicitly see outsiders cheating less, though? ie, do we effectively do a "I'm better than them, so if they can be that good, I can be better"? or something else?

I wonder if self-control might be seen as a bad thing in that case - like in that study with the eagles and rattlers where arbitrary qualities were seen as "good" by one group and therefore "bad" by the other.

That sounds plausible. Now, where do we go to systematically see people with good self control? Or is it just a reason to choose good role models and think about them regularly.

I don't really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don't do it. Instead, I do what I hate. Romans 7:15

Then you'd have to be very careful which parts you read.

The Bible is rather poorly optimized for this purpose, all things considered; you could do a lot better with other books.

Read Hybrid Theory by Blade and Epsilon! ...sometime when you've got a spare week in which to read 1,300,000 words or so.

Reading the right biographies or watching the right movies would probably work...

I can recommend "The Sarah Connor Chronicles" for this purpose. It is longer than a single movie and includes quite a lot of self-controlled characters (above all Cameron of course).

When I saw the series (essentially in one go), the effect described in the study lasted for approximately 2 days.

[-][anonymous]6y 0

How do I operationalise this?

Also the inverse seems to be true: watching someone fail to exert self control makes it more difficult for you to. My husband's laziness has proven dangerously contagious.

Why do we want self-control, again?

To beat our subconscious into submission when we're sufficiently certain that submitting to its impulses is actually against our best interests. IMO, such certainty is harder to come by than it's made out to be.

To get anything done. You might not need any, but your life goals are highly unusual in ways that let you use very little willpower.

I was hoping for a more interesting answer to this question.

How about if I word it this way: Why do you think that finding ways to have access to more willpower is more useful than arranging your life so that you need less willpower? (Do you think that at all? I assume so; the former seems to be discussed here much more regularly than the latter.)

[-][anonymous]12y 1

I see rearranging stuff to need less willpower as a way to get access to more willpower. Sometimes it is the best way. But there are only so many changes you can make to your life before you lose something important. And if you can increase your willpower by a certain amount at a lesser cost than you can avoid the need for it, then it is time to increase your willpower.

Also, in my case there is another aspect to it. I tried the rearrangement strategy. But I did it wrong. Instead of setting my life up so that I had just barely enough willpower I set it so that I didn't even use the willpower I had. That was very comfortable. But unfortunately, every day you don't use your willpower you lose a little of it. So now I spend most of my days procrastinating instead of doing things that you would think of as procrastination. And I would really like to find a way to bootstrap my willpower back to what I had five years ago.

I always thought that anything that required willpower to do was something that you didn't really want to do in the first place.

In some cases that's true - one of the things willpower is used for is dealing with situations where you don't want to make the effort of doing the thing, but you do want something that you'll get as a result of having done the thing. It also applies in situations where you do want to do the thing, but you're fatigued in some way, or distracted, and it probably applies in other kinds of situations that aren't coming to mind at the moment.

ETA: There does seem to be a significant difference, at least for me, between what it feels like to use willpower to do something I truly don't want to do (as in, it's not worth the reward) vs. other uses of willpower. I'm not sure how best to describe it, though. A first approximation is: For things that I truly don't want to do, there's no situation where I can do them without using willpower - even thinking of the reward doesn't help. (That's how I figured out I needed to leave my old job at the nursing home - I went a month or so without ever actually wanting to be there, with no sign of it getting better.)

I thought so too. If you still think so, it means that you have more willpower than you need for the stuff you do.

The things I've always needed to consciously exert "willpower" to do were always those I'd much rather not be doing at the time and needed to be pressured into doing by external forces. Such as homework.

What do you think of the piconomics description of willpower - that willpower is when at a distance we prefer a longer-term gain over a shorter-term gain, but that preference reverses as we get closer to the decision, and willpower is our long-term preferences winning over our short-term ones?

I tend to view my short-term preferences as my true ones instead of my long-term ones.

Neither are your "true preferences" - but preferences changes lead to self-defeating behaviour. If you put your vodka in the loft in the morning to prevent yourself drinking it, and then get it down again in the evening when you change your mind, that's two trips into the loft whose only purpose is to counter each other, which is wasted effort by any measure. Whatever you value, it has to make sense to "straighten out" your preferences so you're not fighting against yourself.

Also, I really do mean "short-term" vs "long-term"; it's not a proxy for "fun" vs "praiseworthy". I had a friend who was damaging her health by taking too many class A drugs. One of the things I tried to say to talk her out of it was that since she liked class As, her goal should be to maximize the total amount of class As she took across her whole life. As it is, her health is now so bad she's had to cut them out altogether, whereas more care when younger could have meant a lifetime of enjoying them.

I've made conscious decisions to try to care as little as possible about my own personal (distant) future, especially since I don't expect my life to improve in the future.

You can anticipate now that you will regret that decision later.

Oddly, I haven't regretted it yet. If anything, the things I regret most tend to be those things I have been told to do in order to improve my future prospects. (For example, I could have had less misery in my life if I had been allowed to drop out of college.)

So on those occasions either the costs have yet to present themselves fully, or you misassesed the future cost/benefit sheet for those decisions at the time. You speak as if you now expect to consistently misassess such things in future and are weighting things in favour of your short-term thinking to counter that. I'm pretty sure that's not rational.

That sounds like a valid example of truly not wanting to do something. That's not the only use of willpower, though.

Is it willpower that keeps me doing level grinding in RPGs when I'm not having fun and all I care about is getting to the next cutscene? Or that led me to make the 400th attempt at beating the final boss of "Prinny: Can I Really be the Hero?" after dying 399 times? (Note: It really did take me more than 400 attempts before I finally beat that boss!)

Is it willpower that makes me decide that I probably shouldn't buy that bag of chips in the grocery store?

Is it willpower that I use when I tell my mom that no, I'm not going to do that task she's telling me to do, and then stick to my decision in spite of her pressure on me to back down?

It could be, in any of those cases. You really don't give enough information.

In the first two cases, it could be willpower, or habit and/or inertia, or some combination of the three. In the third, it depends on whether you find the chips to be tempting or not - making the same kind of decision over whether or not to buy apples is significantly less likely to involve willpower. In the fourth case, it could go either way, depending on how you react to that kind of situation: I find the rewards of that kind of assertiveness obvious enough that doesn't usually take willpower to be assertive, but I also know people who find that kind of situation stressful and would definitely have to make an effort to stick to their decision.

This definition may be useful (though I usually like to mull definitions over before I share them, which I haven't in this case): Willpower is the ability to override your system one reactions and impulses so that you can accomplish something that doesn't have a reward that's visible to system one. This implies that your system-one's ability to model things (edit: and not get distracted by shiny things or overwhelmed by emotion) will have a large effect on what things you need to use willpower to do. (Which explains why I'm not a fan of using willpower, too.)

To avoid over-discounting the future.