Jonah Lehrer, the writer who produced The New Yorker article on self-control that I use in my lesson (see “I Like This Lesson Because It Make Me Have a Longer Temper” (Part One)), has just written about a new study on self-control that shows it can be “contagious.” In other words, the more people see other people exhibiting self-control, the more they will do the same.
Lehrer writes that the study shows that:
…the spread of self-control is mostly driven by the “accessibility” of thoughts about self-control. When we see someone resist the cookie, we’re cognitively inspired, and temporarily aware that resistance is possible. We don’t have to surrender to impulse.
Of course, this is nothing new to teachers who see when a potentially disruptive student enters a class of focused students, he/she will often tend to be more cooperative.
But it is an interesting study. My students clearly have been impacted by the self-control lessons we’ve done, and have spent time thinking about how they can apply it to themselves. I believe that sharing this study with them might help them see that their discipline can also have a positive effect on others. It might provide a little added incentive as they consider their behavior in class, with their friends, and with their families.
I like the idea of self-control being contagious, because I also know the inverse to be true: lack of control spreads like a plague.
Although apparently this study didn’t address it, I would wager that impulsivity or a lack of self control are also contagious. That is, when you see others acting or speaking rashly or impulsively then you are more likely to act that way also. Maybe you think, well why should I bother to exercise self control if they aren’t? Or maybe you see a lack of response/consequences to their impulsive behavior and you are inspired to believe you can also act that way without consequences. So a calm, focused class can help the distracted student rein themselves in; conversely a calm, focused class can be roiled up by just a couple of people prone to outbursts and impulsive behavior. I’ve seen it go both ways. Group dynamics are just fascinating.