LACKING SELF-CONTROL….Brad Plumer points to a survey of two studies by psychologists who found that people who are socially excluded have trouble exerting self-control. I have something to say about that, but first, with the caveat that I know nothing about psychological methodology, does this study strike anyone else as a little bizarre?

In the study’s first experiment, 36 undergraduate participants completed a personality questionnaire. Then, researcher Roy Baumeister, PhD, of Florida State University, and his colleagues told a third of the students–selected at random–that their scores indicated that they would likely end up alone in life (socially rejected). Another third were told that they would have rewarding relationships throughout life. In a control condition that was negative but not based on social rejection, the final third were told that they would be accident-prone as they got older, and that this would negatively affect their life.

Then, to measure self-regulation, the researchers said they’d give each participant a nickel for every ounce they could drink of a healthy but bad-tasting beverage flavored with vinegar. People who can self-regulate well are more likely to perform such unpleasant tasks for future rewards, the researchers theorized.

As it turned out, people who were told they’d be alone in life were less able to regulate their actions–they drank 2.23 ounces on average less than those who anticipated future social acceptance, and 2.15 ounces less than those who were told they’d be accident-prone.

I remember what it was like being a penniless undergrad, but I don’t think I’d drink some nasty vinegar concoction for a few nickels regardless of my socialization. A person can only consume so much fluid even if it tastes good. A liter (Google says that’s 34 ounces) would only get you a buck seventy–less than half a beer. I’d be curious to know how much people actually drank of this stuff.

The second study makes more sense to me.

38 unacquainted undergraduate participants arrived in the lab in groups of four to six. The participants spent 20 minutes getting to know each other, and then were asked to write down the names of two people they’d met whom they’d like to work with in the future. Then, half of the participants–selected at random–were told that no one had chosen to work with them, while half were told that everyone wanted to work with them.

Finally, to test the participants’ ability to self-regulate, the researchers left each participant alone in a room with a bowl of 35 minicookies and asked them to rate the cookies for taste and texture. The participants who thought they had been rejected ate nearly twice as many cookies as those who thought they were accepted by their peers.

Brad extrapolates from this study some interesting observations about American political culture.

…in the end everyone on both left and right ends up bemoaning the excesses of this sort of political setup: the kids are too libertine!, the CEO’s too greedy!, materialism too rampant!, Hollywood stars too haughty!.

The varieties of backlash to these sorts of excesses, meanwhile, tend to move in the direction of actually curtailing these suddenly-too-excessive rights?so you get calls for near-punitive taxation and regulation from the left, or calls to force mothers to go back barefoot to the hearth from the right. What few seem to understand, however, is that many (though, importantly, not all) of these excesses may well result from a breakdown in the democratic community, of the sort that Putnam describes so well.

Since we’re already taking this study to places it was never meant to go, I wonder if this phenomenon occurs in foreign relations as well. Of course nations do not behave like people–they are motivated by different desires and their actions are governed by an entirely distinct set of social norms. They are run by people, though, whose personalities often influence the way a nation is perceived by its allies and enemies. America, case in point.

As we’ve become increasingly isolated in the world community, our foreign policy has waned more impulsive and self-serving. Nominating someone like John Bolton to the UN would be an example of this. Cheney wants Bolton in the administration and so he proposed to give him a prominent foreign policy role, even though JB has all the wrong characteristics to be a good diplomat, and his appointment is bound to puzzle the rest of the world. Perhaps if we were more integrated in the world community, we’d take care to nominate someone who’s actually an internationalist.

Also, the Bush strategy of isolating your enemies–putting them on an axis of evil, accusing them of having WMDs, making it harder to travel to and from them, for example–would be less effective, if the studied behavior could be reliably applied nations, at spreading democracy, which is, in a way, a self-regulation of state power.

Speaking of which, I probably should have self-regulated and not posted on an area I’m not that familiar with. Praktike, as the resident foreign policy expert, may want to tell me to stick to what I know, but I’ve written it and maybe it’ll spark some lively conversation in comments.

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