How Our Friends Affect Our Willpower (Choose Wisely!)

“You are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with.”

Few would argue with the fact that we are similar to our friends. After all, it’s hard to spend time with someone who has a completely different schedule, interests and stomping grounds than you.

But is it possible that the people you spend time with can have a major influence over your willpower?


We are not nearly as individualistic as we tend to believe. We have been hard-wired over thousands of years to become part of the tribe. The tribe is safe. The tribe consists of many people working together to stay alive. So subconsciously we act like others in the tribe to become more likeable. We do this through specialized brain cells known as “mirror neurons”. They’re what make us feel empathy when others are sad, and joy when others are happy. Because of these neurons, we will naturally pick up on the personalities, thoughts and behaviors of those closest to us. Making their habits – whether bad or good – contagious. [1]


Knowing this, it should come as no surprise that our willpower challenges can be hindered by the influence of others. According to a study on a community in Framingham, Massachussets if one of your friends becomes obese, your own risk of obesity increases by 171%! [2] This isn’t hard to believe when we think about how often food is involved in a social setting.

This same principle holds true for other willpower challenges as well. We are more likely to rack up credit card debt when we go shopping with friends. We are more likely to binge drink with friends who are also on a bender, and we are more likely to pick up smoking if our friends begin to as well. [3]


Before we start blaming our friends for all of our willpower failures, it’s important to understand how they can influence us positively as well. If your friend decides to start running every morning, your desire to be a part of the tribe will help you put your running shoes on as well. The same goes for setting a budget, eating healthier and striving towards more professional success. [4]

However, there is a key difference between the contagiousness of goals and failures. Goals are inherently long-term. If we don’t share the same long-term values as our friends do, such as career advancement, then it’s unlikely that we’ll “catch” their goals. But when it comes to failures it is far more likely we’ll catch the behavior (after all, who doesn't like cookies?!)


I’ve written about how we can learn a lot from Alcoholics Anonymous when it comes to reaching goals and overcoming temptations before; and goal contagion reemphasizes the point. As opposed to other treatment facilities, Alcoholics Anonymous creates much more of a sense of community in their treatment. They share the same goals and challenges to help each other through the tough times. This is also exemplified by the fact that each member has an individual sponsor that they can turn to for support in getting over their addiction. This community is one of the major factors in helping alcoholics quit. [5]


When setting your goals, look to your friends to see what their habits and goals are. If they don’t align with what you’re trying to accomplish, or can derail you completely, understand the power of their influence. It is far more likely that you will be able to accomplish your goals if you align yourself with people who share the same aims as you.

Do you notice an effect that your friends have on your goals - whether good or bad?


  1. Rizzolatti, Giacomo. "The Mirror Neuron System and Its Function in Humans." Anatomy and Embryology 210.5-6 (2005): 419-21.
  2. Christakis, Nicholas A., and James H. Fowler. "The Spread of Obesity in a Large Social Network over 32 Years." New England Journal of Medicine 357.4 (2007): 370-79
  3. Fowler, J.h., and N.a. Christakis. "Estimating Peer Effects on Health in Social Networks: A Response to Cohen-Cole and Fletcher; and Trogdon, Nonnemaker, and Pais." Journal of Health Economics 27.5 (2008): 1400-405.
  4. Bouquet, Cédric A., Thomas F. Shipley, Rémi L. Capa, and Peter J. Marshall. "Motor Contagion." Experimental Psychology (formerly Zeitschrift Für Experimentelle Psychologie) 58.1 (2011): 71-78
  5. Kaskutas, Lee Ann. "Alcoholics Anonymous Effectiveness: Faith Meets Science." Journal of Addictive Diseases 28.2 (2009): 145-57