Ever wonder why programs like WeightWatchers, that encourage people to weigh in every week and attend regular meetings, are so popular and successful for so many? It may have a great deal to do with the "contagious" nature of self-control and following the good examples of others. Researchers came to those elegantly simple conclusions after completing a series of five studies with the help of nearly 400 volunteers at Duke University.
In fact, just watching or thinking about someone you know who exercises good self-control is enough to influence your own self-control for the better. Moreover, this behavioral benefit cuts across all kinds of basic decisions people make, meaning the self-discipline you exercise at your local Baskin-Robbins may be just as apparent in the choices you'll make about your personal finances and career.
Unfortunately, however, the reverse is also true. Watching poor self-control in action -- your brother-in-law devouring a 1-pound bag of potato chips in one sitting, for example -- can be equally contagious and potentially harmful to your health. So much so, that merely viewing the name of someone you know possessing good or bad self-control flashing on a screen for a tiny fraction of a second may influence your behavior positively or poorly.
Researchers are quick to point out that the benefits of this self-control may be enough to make you skip that extra cookie you don't need before dinner or go to the gym even when you're not in the mood, and that's potentially a very good thing. On the other hand, the effect on the negative side of the ledger -- you accept your co-worker's request to take home an extra piece of cake -- isn't strong enough to absolve you from making poor decisions either.
Which means, the Twinkie defense is still completely wrong and you're not getting away with it, no matter what...
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Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin December 15, 2009
healthfinder.gov January 18, 2010
EurekAlert January 13, 2010