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.

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.

Opposites Attract

Of course, Tom is real, whereas these studies are made up in the lab. To bring their inquiry closer to the real-life Tom Gordons of the world, Fitzsimons and her team decided to study actual romantic relationships. They evaluated more than 100 couples—both partners—on their self-control and their dependence on their partner. By dependence, they meant: “To what extent is your partner, and only your partner, able to fulfill your needs?”

The findings reinforced the lab results. As described in a forthcoming article in the journal Psychological Science, those volunteers with low self-control were more dependent on their partner—they felt the relationship was essential to their personal well-being—but only when their partner was highly disciplined. Those who were themselves disciplined showed no differences in their emotional dependence. They apparently did not have the same powerful need for a partner who would make up for their own impulsiveness.

Taken together, these experiments offer evidence for a social self-regulatory process by which we become close to others to compensate for our flaws. These scientists are not suggesting that such reliance on others can or will trump impulsiveness, not entirely. Indeed, overwhelming evidence points to the opposite—that self-control deficits are very difficult to overcome and that such traits often lead to less fulfilling and less successful lives. Yet these findings do at least raise the hope that people who are naturally impulsive might play an active role in overcoming their own weaknesses—rather than just accepting their unhappy fate.