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Self-Control and Success (and how to learn better self-control too)

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. was Director of Mental Help Net from 1999 to 2011. Dr. Dombeck received his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology in 1995 ...Read More

An article on the SFGate website titled "Self-control is the key to success" recently caught my eye. The article is largely an editorial sort of piece centered around an interesting research finding from the 1970s work of psychologist Walter Mischel. Dr. Mischel studied young (4 year old) children’s ability to delay gratification by leaving them in a room with a bell and a marshmallow. He instructed them that he would eventually come back into the room, but not for a while, and that when he did come back, he would bring an additional marshmallow for them to eat. If they could wait for his return, they would have two marshmallows, but if they couldn’t wait, they could ring the bell before he returned and then eat the existing marshmallow. Not surprisingly, some children were able to wait and received two marshmallows, while others couldn’t stand not being able to eat the candy and gave in early, receiving only one marshmallow. The truly interesting part of the study occurred years later when Dr. Mischel tracked down the children in adulthood and looked at their various levels of achievement.

Not surprisingly, there was a direct relationship between childhood impulsivity and poor adult achievement, and childhood ability to delay gratification and high adult achievement. According to the SFGate story,

"The children who waited longer went on to get higher SAT scores. They got into better colleges and had, on average, better adult outcomes. The children who rang the bell quickest were more likely to become bullies. They received worse teacher and parental evaluations 10 years later and were more likely to have drug problems at age 32."

The study itself is interesting, but it is the ramifications for educational policy that are the heart of the article which argues that the current focus on endless achievement testing in the schools is misguided (well, duh!), and that there ought to be programs out there to help students learn to better delay gratification. A vital componant of a child’s ability to delay gratification, the author argues, is to help that child learn that there is a stable long term to invest in. Too many children’s lives are disrupted by one family crisis after another (e.g., abuse, drugs, poverty, relationship violence, etc.), says the author, to which I say, "Amen brother".

"What works, says Jonathan Haidt, the author of "The Happiness Hypothesis," is creating stable, predictable environments for children, in which good behavior pays off — and practice. Young people who are given a series of tests that demand self-control get better at it. "

It’s a pretty good little article and worth reading (despite the fact that I’ve restated most of it here). Please check it out.

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