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Science Supports “Sticking With the Winners” in Sobriety

Science Supports “Sticking With the Winners” in Sobriety

(This content is being used for illustrative purposes only; any person depicted in the content is a model)

Author: Justin Mckibben

Ever heard the phrase ‘stick with the winners,’ or maybe emphasized the importance of changing ‘people, places and things’ in early sobriety?

If not that’s OK, but now that you HAVE heard it, let’s take a look at some of the logic supporting why people say this stuff.

People tend to simulate the behavior of their peers, and this can go beyond peer pressure to an even subconscious level. Characteristics such as smoking, drug use and obesity tend to spread through social networks, and these kinds of compulsions go hand-in-hand with self-control and obsessive behaviors, so could it be true that self-control is contagious?

The University of Georgia and Duke University just published a series of studies insisting that based on the data collected the act watching or even thinking about someone with good self-control can actually make others more likely to exert self-control.

The research found that the opposite holds true, too. So bad self-control creates a bad influence.

So in sobriety when they say stick with the winners, there may be an actual science to that!

Weirdly enough, the effect is more powerful than you think.

Study Series

This study is supposedly the first to validate self-control as contagious across behaviors, meaning just thinking about someone who exercises self-control can make you more likely to follow suit. It someone is motivated and dedicated, it can impact you enough to help you.

In an early online addition of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, the results of five separate studies conducted over two years were published collectively as part of this hypothesis.

Trial 1

In the study researchers randomly assigned 36 volunteers to think about a friend with either good or bad self-control.

  • Those that thought about a friend with good self-control persisted longer on a task commonly used to measure self-control
  • Those who were asked to think about a friend with bad self-control experienced the opposite effect on the same task

Trial 2

Following the first experiment, another group of 71 volunteers were split into 2 groups.

  • Group 1- watched others exert self-control by choosing a carrot from a plate in front of them instead of a cookie from a nearby plate
  • Group 2- watched people eat the cookies instead of the carrots

None of the volunteers had any kind of direct interaction with the ones eating the carrot or cookies (other than watching them). Despite the lack of contact or communication, their own performance was altered on a later test of self-control depending on which group they were in.

  • Group 1- exhibited better self-control
  • Group 2- exhibited issues with self-control

Trial 3

42 volunteers were used in this study and were randomly asked to list from their group of friends with both good and bad self-control. While completing a computerized test designed to measure self-control, the computer screen would flash the names for 10 milliseconds.

10 milliseconds is considered too fast to be read, but enough time to subliminally bring the names to mind.

  • Those who were given a glimpse of names of friends with good self-control did better
  • Those who were flashed with the names of friends with bad self-control did worse

Trial 4

112 volunteers were assigned to one of 3 groups.

  • Group 1- write about friend with good self-control
  • Group 2- write about friend with bad self-control
  • Group 3- control group- write about friend who is moderately extroverted

On a later test of self-control, those who wrote about friends with good self-control did the best, while those who wrote about friends with bad self-control did the worst. The control group, those who wrote about a moderately extroverted friend, scored between the other two groups.

Trial 5

Researchers found out of 117 volunteers those who were randomly assigned to write about friends with good self-control were quicker at identifying words related to self-control, such as:

This last study was uniquely impressive because it suggests self-control is contagious, because being exposed to people with either good or bad self-control can actually influence how available thoughts about self-control are and how naturally we act on them.

Sticking With the Winners

The researchers concluded that even though the influence is there, the effect isn’t enough to absolve people of accountability for their actions. They acknowledge it is a nudge toward or away from temptation, but it is only suggestive and subconscious in either direction.

In recovery it is never a guarantee hanging out with people who are passionate about their recovery program or remaining spiritually and emotionally fit will let you get their sobriety through osmosis. Sadly it’s just not that easy.

However, this data suggests despite having been conditioned to have little to no self-control, especially in regards to drugs and alcohol, spending more time with people who have been clean and sober, who are able to work a program and remain abstinent has a better chance of influencing you to follow those footsteps.

The same can be said if you make a home for yourself among people making the wrong decisions and harming others. It’s the whole “water seeks its own level” mentality that has more reality behind it than some would care to admit.

So self-control may be far beyond the concept of hopelessness familiar to most alcoholics and drug addicts, but even though control over drinking and drugging seems impossible there is hope for a better future by putting yourself around the right people who can inspire you through what they accomplish in recovery.

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