Researchers have revealed that watching or even thinking about someone with good self-control makes others more likely exert self-control.
On the other hand, those with bad self-control influence others negatively.
The new study also showed that just seeing the name of someone with good or bad self-control flashing on a screen for just 10 milliseconds changed the behaviour 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," she added.
The new findings are the result of five separate studies conducted over two years with study co-author Rick Hoyle at Duke University.
In the first study, the 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 handgrip task commonly used to measure self-control, while the opposite held true for those who were asked to think about a friend with bad self-control.
In the second study, 71 volunteers watched others exert self-control by choosing a carrot from a plate in front of them instead of a cookie from a nearby plate, while others watched people eat the cookies instead of the carrots.
The volunteers had no interaction with the tasters other than watching them, yet their performance was altered on a later test of self-control depending on who they were randomly assigned to watch.
In the third study, 42 volunteers were randomly assigned to list friends with both good and bad self-control. As they were completing a computerized test designed to measure self-control, the computer screen would flash the names for 10 milliseconds-too fast to be read but enough to subliminally bring the names to mind.
Those who were primed with the name of a friend with good self-control did better, while those primed with friends with bad self-control did worse.
In a fourth study, vanDellen randomly assigned 112 volunteers to write about a friend with good self-control, bad self-control or-for a control group-a 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.
In the fifth study of 117 volunteers, the researchers found that those who were randomly assigned to write about friends with good self-control were faster than the other groups at identifying words related to self-control, such as achieve, discipline and effort.
The study was published online in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.