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See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 23, Issue 6

Finding Self-Discipline in Others

People who lack restraint seek out colleagues and friends who are not impulsive



KATE LEMAY

My high school classmate Tom Gordon was everyone's choice for “least likely to succeed.” He drank too much and drove too fast, and he got busted for petty theft again and again. He skipped school as often as he showed up, and he was too undisciplined for sports or other organized activities. When he did get hired for part-time jobs, he would either quit or get himself fired soon after. He was a loser.

So imagine my bewilderment when I ran into Tom (whose name I have changed to protect his identity) some years later. He was sitting in a local diner, drinking coffee and reading several newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal. It turns out that a few years out of school, he had married one of our quieter and more studious classmates. He had started surrounding himself with her solid and conscientious friends, leaving the bad boys of high school behind. He no longer ran with a fast crowd, and he rarely even had a drink. He was an engaged father and had a small business. He lived a life of moderation.

Many people know a Tom Gordon or did at one time, and most of their stories do not have such a happy outcome. Indeed, most kids with poor self-control grow up to be adults with poor self-control. So what turned Tom around? Why didn't his undisciplined nature lead him inevitably into a life of trouble and failure, as we all had predicted?

New research may offer some insights into Tom's mysterious turnaround. A team of Duke University psychological scientists, headed by Gráinne Fitzsimons, has been studying people with poor self-discipline, in particular the idea that the Tom Gordons of the world may be aware of their shortcomings—and compensate for them. Perhaps, they suggest, Tom deliberately chose a new social circle—both wife and friends—as a self-regulatory strategy, riding the disciplinary coattails of the more fortunate.

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