Wanting for Willpower
Fitzsimons and her colleagues ran a couple of laboratory experiments, plus a study of actual couples, to see how lack of self-control shapes our views of other, more disciplined people. In one study, for example, the researchers used a standard lab manipulation to deplete some of their volunteers' reserves of self-command. The participants had to pay attention to a video while ignoring words flashing on the screen, a regimen that has been shown to tax willpower and leave subjects prone to giving in to their impulses. With their mental discipline temporarily weakened, these volunteers (and the control subjects who had not done the willpower-weakening exercise) read stories about three office managers: one highly disciplined, one undisciplined and one in the middle. All the volunteers then evaluated the three managers.
The results were clear. The volunteers who had been sapped of self-control viewed the highly disciplined managers more positively than the moderately disciplined managers, both of whom they favored over the undisciplined ones. The control subjects showed no preference; they liked all the managers equally. The results support the researchers' hypothesis: undisciplined people seem to be attracted to others, even strangers, who possess the emotional resources that they themselves lack.
Granted, this was an artificial lab situation, exploring a temporary depletion of self-control. What about people like my classmate Tom, in whom this character trait persists? Will they also show a preference for role models of self-discipline? To explore this question, the scientists set up a different lab situation: the Stroop test, in which color words such as “yellow” appear in rapid succession, written in a different color than the word is describing [see illustration above]. Subjects must try to ignore the meaning of the word and focus only on the color of the text. Performance on this test has been shown to be a good proxy for willpower as an enduring trait.
After measuring self-control this way, the researchers divided the disciplined and undisciplined volunteers into separate groups. Then they all read stories very similar to those in the first study and rated the person in these stories: Would they be excited to meet this person? Might they become friends? Could they work together?
As predicted, those who were by nature undisciplined were much more positive toward people who had high self-control. Notably, volunteers who were themselves very disciplined by nature showed no preference for this trait—or lack of it—in others. The researchers suggest that people who are already self-sufficient do not pay much attention to others' level of self-discipline, whereas those who lack restraint scrutinize the trait in others. In terms of Tom, it is at least plausible that he knew on some level that he should be around people unlike himself. He used his wife and new friends to regulate his own destructive impulses.