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.

LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

Getty Images
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

Keep reading Show less

4 reasons Martin Luther King, Jr. fought for universal basic income

In his final years, Martin Luther King, Jr. become increasingly focused on the problem of poverty in America.

(Photo by J. Wilds/Keystone/Getty Images)
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Despite being widely known for his leadership role in the American civil rights movement, Martin Luther King, Jr. also played a central role in organizing the Poor People's Campaign of 1968.
  • The campaign was one of the first to demand a guaranteed income for all poor families in America.
  • Today, the idea of a universal basic income is increasingly popular, and King's arguments in support of the policy still make a good case some 50 years later.
Keep reading Show less

Why avoiding logical fallacies is an everyday superpower

10 of the most sandbagging, red-herring, and effective logical fallacies.

Photo credit: Miguel Henriques on Unsplash
Personal Growth
  • Many an otherwise-worthwhile argument has been derailed by logical fallacies.
  • Sometimes these fallacies are deliberate tricks, and sometimes just bad reasoning.
  • Avoiding these traps makes disgreeing so much better.
Keep reading Show less

Why I wear my life on my skin

For Damien Echols, tattoos are part of his existential armor.

  • In prison Damien Echols was known by his number SK931, not his name, and had his hair sheared off. Stripped of his identity, the only thing he had left was his skin.
  • This is why he began tattooing things that are meaningful to him — to carry a "suit of armor" made up the images of the people and objects that have significance to him, from his friends to talismans.
  • Echols believes that all places are imbued with divinity: "If you interact with New York City as if there's an intelligence behind... then it will behave towards you the same way."
Keep reading Show less