Why Build Self-Control?

Want your child to be successful? Help her build self-control. Most middle-class children already receive enough cognitive stimulation to develop intelligence close to its full potential. In contrast, many children have room to increase their self-control.

The discovery was one of those fortunate accidents. Walter Mischel, a psychologist at Stanford, was interested in the stability of personality traits. In the late 1960s, he decided to study individual differences in young children’s ability to delay gratification.


His own daughters were preschoolers in the university’s Bing Nursery School. With their help, Mischel worked out the procedure for an experiment in self-control, using their classmates as subjects. He would place a marshmallow on a plate in front of a four-year-old and tell the child that he or she could earn a second marshmallow by waiting to eat the first one. This challenge is extremely difficult for a preschooler. Some children ate the marshmallow as soon as the researcher left the room, while others could wait as long as 15 or 20 minutes.

Mischel and his colleagues showed that they could increase the delay times for children who were weak in self-control by teaching them better strategies, like imagining the marshmallow was a cloud rather than a yummy treat. Many of the children with good self-control seemed to use these strategies spontaneously. Then he moved on to other experiments.

A decade later, as his daughters were chatting about their friends at dinner, he realized that the ones who were doing poorly in school were the same children who’d had short delay times in the old marshmallow experiment. He started asking about other children who had participated and realized that he needed to do a follow-up study.

Of the original 653 kids, Mischel managed to track down 185 when they were 15-18 years old. He found that good self-control in preschool predicted better SAT scores and ability to concentrate in high school, while poor self-control predicted later problems with self-regulation and coping with stress.

Self-control is a basic brain capacity that supports almost everything else that the brain does. The skills that make up self-control include cognitive flexibility (the ability to try a new approach when the old strategy isn’t working), resistance to distraction, and impulse control. These abilities help people to plan and organize behavior to achieve their goals.

Some of the individual differences in self-control are inherited, but it’s also possible to improve these abilities through practice, even in adulthood. Roy Baumeister showed that self-control is a limited resource, but like a muscle, it also grows stronger when it’s used.

Many parents will get a bigger payoff for building their children’s self-control than for trying to improve their intelligence. The reason is because most middle-class children already receive enough cognitive stimulation to develop intelligence close to its full potential. In contrast, many children have room to increase their self-control, and another long-term study suggests that doing so would improve their lives.

For more than three decades, Terri Moffitt, Avshalom Caspi and their colleagues followed one thousand people born in Dunedin, New Zealand in the early 1970s. Self-control from ages three to eleven was associated with more success at age 32 across a wide range of measures.

People with better childhood self-control were more likely to be in good financial shape and physically healthy as adults than those with worse self-control. Higher self-control also predicted a lower risk of becoming a single parent, a criminal, or a substance abuser. These differences existed even after variations in intelligence or social class were taken into account, and the long-term consequences of adolescent mistakes like dropping out of school or teen pregnancy accounted for only part of the effect.

In a group of British twins, the same researchers directly compared fraternal, same-sex pairs, who are as related as regular siblings but matched for age and gender. The twin with better self-control at age five had a lower risk of smoking, poor grades, and antisocial behavior at age twelve, despite sharing the same family environment.

The researchers found correlations between childhood self-control and adult success across the entire range of self-control, not just differences between people with poor self-control and everyone else. Being in the top 20% was better than being in the second quintile, and so on. This finding suggests that building self-control is likely to improve the lives of most kids—even the ones who are already above average at it.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.com.

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.