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.

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.