Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

People Who Lack Self-Control Value Others Who Have It

Drawing strength from others

Willpower is a notoriously fickle thing. Some days, you can withstand even the fiercest temptation.  On other days, you can be distracted from your goals by almost anything.  There are clear differences between people as well.  Some people maintain a single-minded focus on their goals, while others give in to the slightest enticement.

 What can you do in those situations in which your willpower is going to let you down?  At those times, it can be helpful to cling to the people around you who are good at resisting temptation.  You can draw strength from other people. 

 An article by Catherine Shea, Erin Davisson, and Grainne Fitzsimons in the June, 2013 issue of Psychological Science suggests that people with low self-control naturally value the self-control in other people. 

 In one study, the researchers manipulated people’s self-control resources using an ego depletion task.  Some participants had to perform a moderately difficult self-control task.  They watched a video and had to evaluate a character on the video.  During the video, words flashed on the task.  The ego-depletion group was told to ignore the words, while the control group watched the video with no instructions.  This task is known to wear down people’s self-control abilities, which can cause self-control failures in later situations.

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 After watching the video, participants read a vignette about an office manager.  The story either suggested that the manager had a high, moderate, or low level of self-control. They were asked to rate how good a leader the manager was likely to be. Participants who had just done an ego depletion task and had a low level of self-control resources gave higher ratings when reading the story about the manager with a high level of self-control than when reading the story about the manager with a low level of self-control.  Ratings of the manager with a moderate level of self-control came out in between. 

 The participants who did the control task did not give significantly different ratings to the three managers.  They were less influenced by differences in other people’s self-control.

 A second study demonstrated a similar effect, but looked at individual differences in participants’ self-control.  Differences in self-control were measured using the Stroop task.  In the Stroop task, people identify the color of the font of words.  The words are names of colors.  When the word names the same color as the font, people are faster to name the color than when the word names a different color from the font.  The difference between the speed of the consistent and inconsistent responses is a measure of self-control.  People with a high level of self-control show less of a difference than those with a low level of self-control. 

 The people with a low level of self-control (as measured by the Stroop task) gave a similar pattern of ratings as those in the ego-depletion condition of the previous study.  Their ratings differed substantially based on the level of self-control of the manager.  The people with a high level of self-control did not differ much in their ratings of the manager. 

 A third study examined the relationship between the degree of self-control of the members of a romantic couple and their level of dependence on each other.  A partner with a low level of self-control relied much more on their significant other when that person had a high level of self control than when that person had a low level of self-control.  A partner with a high level of self-control relied on their significant other equally strongly regardless of that person’s level of self-control.  

 These studies suggest that people naturally recognize the role that other people can play to enhance their self-control.  When a person has a low-level of self control as a trait or when their willpower is tapped, they are much more prone to value the willpower of other people than when their self-control resources are high. 

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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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