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Saturday, January 16, 2010

Self-control is catching: The implications for public policy 


This seems like an argument for choosing one's friends and associates wisely:

In a just-published series of studies involving hundreds of volunteers, researchers have found that watching or even thinking about someone with good self-control makes others more likely exert self-control. The researchers found that the opposite holds, too, so that people with bad self-control influence others negatively. The effect is so powerful, in fact, that seeing the name of someone with good or bad self-control flashing on a screen for just 10 milliseconds changed the behavior of volunteers.

“The take home message of this study is that picking social influences that are positive can improve your self-control,” said lead author Michelle vanDellen, a visiting assistant professor in the UGA department of psychology. “And by exhibiting self-control, you’re helping others around you do the same.”

Commentary

Assuming for the sake of argument that the linked studies were designed well and conducted properly, there are several implications that might flow therefrom.

  • People who do not generally conduct themselves with self-discipline are not only hurting themselves, but they are hurting others. Europeans would call this "social dumping," the shifting of a negative "externality" on others.


  • If undisciplined people are causing other people to be undisciplined (whether in eating, manners, work ethic, spending habits, or other relevant context), then perhaps we are entitled to judge them. The old school admonitions to get a hair cut, get a clue, get a job, and save money are more than just the imposition of bourgeois values. They are good for society, which is every non-judgmental liberal's justification for state action. Ironic, dat.


  • The linked studies undermine the case for hard-core libertarianism, or at least require libertarians to justify the social damage that would be caused by undisciplined people under less regulation. Libertarians might counter that we only have so many undisciplined people because the state has effectively substituted regulation and the welfare state for self-discipline and thereby atrophied the habits of good discipline.


  • Social influences toward immediate rather than deferred gratification -- including both commercial advertising and government programs that protect people from their own stupidity -- may do a lot more harm than their defenders argue.


  • The linked studies may explain why orderly societies stay orderly and disintegrated ones stay disintegrated -- the firewood is stacked perfectly in Switzerland for a reason.


  • If personal indiscipline is at the root of a lot of social pathology -- illegitimacy, drug abuse, crime, vice, unemployment, and chronic indebtedness -- then how do we break the cycle without exposing indisciplined people to disciplined people? Is there any way to do that in a free society? Could universal military service break the cycle of indiscipline for the nation's poor, and would that be a price worth paying?


  • Release the hounds.

    CWCID: Ann.

    11 Comments:

    By Blogger Bomber Girl, at Sat Jan 16, 11:41:00 AM:

    "Could universal military service break the cycle of indiscipline for the nation's poor, and would that be a price worth paying?"

    I support the idea of universal military service for a variety of reasons but I am wondering whether you think that a lack of discipline is only a problem of the poor? The "haves" without discipline wreak another set of problems.  

    By Anonymous Just Because I'm Paranoid ..., at Sat Jan 16, 12:28:00 PM:

    Be careful, the road to fascism is paved with your kind of thinking.

    Here's what I have trouble reconciling:

    Christian religions say that we're put on Earth as a moral test and that you can't get rid of evil on Earth. But much of what I hear out of the religious right isn't about saving sinners like me, as much as it's about banishing temptation from their sight. As a corollary, I'd take the bet that a good number of the religious right would get a secret abortion for a young daughter. I'm not trying to pick a fight here -- most of the religious right wouldn't -- I'm just saying we have hypocrites everywhere. Adding restrictions on freedom often just increases the hypocrisy. E.g., I doubt that any of our kids would go to jail on a first-time drug charge -- not so true for inner city black kids. E.g, politicians vetted by the religious right are just as likely to be diddling an intern or equivalent ... I'd make book on televangelists.

    Illegitimacy is our biggest social problem. Black illegitimacy rates are nearly 70%. White rates are near 30%, which is where black rates used to be. For whites, the rate is often higher for those who are Church-goers. Little Tripp Palin isn't alone, although he won't be disadvantaged. Most illegitimate kids are. This is a big driver in why we have Two Americas.  

    By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Sat Jan 16, 01:53:00 PM:

    "Be careful, the road to fascism is paved with your kind of thinking."

    That's ridiculous. The core of fascism is placing the state at the center of life. Statist liberals (especially the rabidly secular variety) are far more 'fascist.'

    "I doubt that any of our kids would go to jail on a first-time drug charge -- not so true for inner city black kids."

    Assumption + Assumption = flawed logic. Toss in a broad, yet unstated glossing over of facts (like ignoring that it totally depends on the kind of drug, the amount of the drug, other simultaneous offenses [like weapons charges or DUI], and past criminal history) and you have a work of fiction. A hint of presumed racism is the icing. Lovely.

    "Two Americas."

    If you buy the logic that says we have two Americas, then we have a lot more than just two. DC is almost completely disconnected from the rest of us; we may as well rename it Versailles. Al Gore practically has one whole reality to himself. New Yorkers and Californians snottily refer to the rest of the nation as 'Flyover Country.' Et cetera.

    "Could universal military service break the cycle of indiscipline for the nation's poor, and would that be a price worth paying?"

    I can see how this could work by instilling values of discipline, integrity, and merit in recruits who are lacking them, but execution in practice could be a nightmare and come with onerous political consequences if not handled carefully. i.e. one of the reasons that Europeans are so wussy about military adventure these days is that their armies are fleshed out with conscription, and they have an issue with sending draftees to war for anything less than a crisis. Also, improperly supported militaries who have to deal with large numbers of conscripts actually suffer in discipline. The military itself is dead set against conscription.

    This data seems like support for the encouragement of personal responsibility and values, rather than state paternalism. After all, who wants their values or personal behavior mandated by the government? (except for fascists, of course) And without going down such a totalitarian road, there will always be dysfunctional families, bad parents, and spiraling patterns of poor choices that will taint the next generation. But by encouraging (i.e. rewarding) behaviors like self-discipline, integrity, and calculated self-improvement there may be a ripple effect, and the numbers of such 'at hope' people can be minimized.

    Be wary of social engineering. There are always unintended consequences. (i.e. with universal conscription, almost the entire citizenry will have formal military training, which may have far-reaching implications) Though I think the closer we can get to Switzerland without sacrificing our crazy, chaotic, American ingenuity, the better.  

    By Anonymous feeblemind, at Sat Jan 16, 02:55:00 PM:

    No answers TH, just an observation.

    Not surprising self-control can be catching. Attitudes good and bad, enthusiasm, pessimism, rudeness or showing consideration can all be catching. I don't know why money had to be spent on a scientific study to figure this out.

    My question would be, why do people emulate behavior? I am sure many readers have seen a worker with a bad attitude sour the work environment or can think of a time when a spouse comes home from work in a bad mood, and before long the entire family is ticked off.

    Why does behavior rub off, for good or bad?  

    By Blogger Wen, at Sat Jan 16, 03:05:00 PM:

    This insight requires scientific study? Just read your Fielding:

    "It is a trite but true observation that examples work more forcibly on the minds than precepts, and if this be just in what is odious and blameable, it is more strongly so in what is amiable and praiseworthy. Here emulation most effectually operates upon us, and inspires our imitation in an irresistable manner. A good man, therefore, is a standing lesson to all his aquaintance, and of far greater use in that narrow circle than a good book."

    And Fielding found this wisdom "trite" long, long ago!  

    By Blogger Wen, at Sat Jan 16, 03:18:00 PM:

    That should have of course been "more forcibly on the mind", not minds. I am influenced by the disorderly typists I hang around with.  

    By Blogger Purple Avenger, at Sat Jan 16, 05:05:00 PM:

    Illegitimacy is our biggest social problem.

    Hardly unexpected since its subsidized by the government via WIC, AFDC, etc.

    When you want more of something, you subsidize it. When you want less of something, you tax it. Econ 101  

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sat Jan 16, 07:59:00 PM:

    Interesting post, I wanted to read the whole thing but there's something good on TV right now, maybe I'll come back to it later  

    By Blogger JPMcT, at Sat Jan 16, 11:57:00 PM:

    "If undisciplined people are causing other people to be undisciplined (whether in eating, manners, work ethic, spending habits, or other relevant context), then perhaps we are entitled to judge them."


    Heavens! We certainly ARE entitled to judge them!!!

    As with the most obvoius case of the former behaviour, we will judge them next Tuesday in Massachussets and again this November.  

    By Blogger Assistant Village Idiot, at Sun Jan 17, 12:04:00 AM:

    feeblemind, I would say that there is an automatic tendency to fit in with the Tribe Visible. We are not slaves to this instinct, but it may be a default setting in all of us, subject to being countertrained in the direction of internalised values.  

    By Blogger IrishCicero, at Sun Jan 17, 12:28:00 AM:

    Thanks, Tiger. We linked you.  

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