Will a Partner's Low Self-Control Rub Off on You? Probably

Striver-slacker pairings make for good TV, but aren't ideal in real life.

ByABC News
May 27, 2014, 2:49 PM
Lena Dunham's character Hannah on HBO's Girls argues with her boyfriend Adam (played by Adam Driver).
Lena Dunham's character Hannah on HBO's Girls argues with her boyfriend Adam (played by Adam Driver).

May 27, 2014— -- In Hollywood movie plots, the odd-couple pairing of a striver and a slacker often makes for slapstick comedy (see Alison and Ben in "Knocked Up") or emotionally charged dialogue (think Hannah and Adam of HBO's "Girls"). But what are the real-life implications when a person with high self-control pairs up with one who has very little?

According to new research, not much of a happy ending: He or she may develop poor eating habits and fritter away life savings.

In her recently released study, "Should Birds of a Feather Flock Together? Understanding Self-Control Decisions in Dyads," Hristina Dzhogleva and Cait Poyner Lamberton found that couples with mismatched levels of self-control display the same level of indulgence as couples with two lazybones.

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To arrive at these findings, the researchers conducted a series of experiments with both married couples and pairs of students to study the self-control decisions of three different types of pairs: high self-control (both partners are good at exercising restraint), low self-control (both partners tend to give into temptation), and mixed dyads (one partner has high self-control and the other has low self-control). Environments for the research ranged from church coffee hours to lab settings to online forums.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the studies found high self-control couples are exceedingly good at maintaining healthy eating habits, saving money and incurring little debt. Also unsurprising: Low self-control couples struggle in all of those areas.

But interestingly, while one might expect a mixed couple to defer to the partner with more restraint, Dzhogleva and Poyner Lamberton's research found the opposite to be true: The joint decisions of a mixed dyad closely resembled those of the low self-control couples.

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"Maintaining the relationship is more important for the high self-control partner than sticking to their guns,” wrote Dzhogleva, who is also assistant professor of marketing at the Carroll School of Management at Boston College. "As a result, mixed dyads may end up with worse long-term health and financial outcomes than they may expect."

Dzhogleva doesn't think the conflict is insurmountable, however. She recommends high self-control individuals maintain awareness of their tendency to give in, and that low self-control partners be encouraged to compromise more. Both parties should know that they are not alone in this dilemma.

"When I present this research, a lot of people usually recognize themselves in it!" she told ABC News.