Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Self-Control and Success

Why does early self-control ability predict later success?

Most of us believe that a certain amount of self-control is crucial for success.  In order to succeed in the modern world, you need expertise in some area.  Gaining that expertise requires work and practice.  The discipline to work or practice at something means that you have to give up things that might be fun right now in order to engage in actions that will be rewarding in the future. 

Research by Walter Mischel, Yuichi Shoda, and their colleagues supports this link.  They looked at the relationship between the delay of gratification task developed by Walter Mischel in the 1960s and later performance. 

In the delay of gratification task, young kids (often preschoolers) are put in a room where they are seated in front of a desirable food (like a marshmallow or cookie).  They are told that the experimenter is going to leave the room for a while and that if they have not eaten the treat while the experimenter is gone, they will get two treats instead.  The experimenter then leaves the room for a period of time (often about 10 minutes) and then returns.  The amount of time that a child is willing to wait in order to get the extra treat is a measure of self-control.  Mischel, Shoda, and their colleagues find that the amount of time that children will wait as preschoolers is related to many positive outcomes in adolescence such as higher grades, greater social competence, and a better ability to deal with stress.

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What is going on with this delay of gratification task? 

On its face, it clearly measures some kind of self-control ability.  However, it may also measure other factors like intelligence that could ultimately lead to differences years later.  An interesting paper by Angela Duckworth, Eli Tsukayama, and Teri Kirby in the July, 2013 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin explored the delay of gratification task in more detail. 

They examined the data from 966 children who were given the delay of gratification test as preschoolers as part of a longitudinal study.  In addition to this test, there was information from parents and caregivers about ability to focus attention, impulsivity, temperament, and intelligence.  In 9th grade, these same students were assessed for their grade-point average, achievement test scores, their body mass index, and their tendency to engage in risky behavior.  A variety of other demographic characteristics were also measured including parental education level, SES, gender, and race/ethnicity.

In this study, performance on the delay of gratification task was related to both parent/caregiver ratings of self-control as well as measures of intelligence.  A statistical analysis was then used to look at how these measurements in preschool related to outcomes in ninth grade.  The delay of gratification task did not predict anything on its own.  Instead, higher self-control at age 4 predicts higher standardized test scores, higher GPA and lower body mass index in ninth grade.  Higher intelligence at age 4 strongly predicts higher standardized test scores in ninth grade.  There is a weak relationship in which higher intelligence at age 4 also predicts slightly higher body mass index in ninth grade.

What does all of this mean?

Grade-point average in school is a better predictor of future success than just standardized test scores, because GPA reflects a combination of overall ability level and willingness to work hard in school.  Self-control is related to people’s ability to work hard to achieve their long-term goals.  This self-control is also reflected in a lower body mass index, suggesting that people with a high level of self-control at a young age do more things to take care of themselves as they get older.

If you were lucky enough to be born with a high level of self-control as a child, then that bodes well for you in the future.  But, what if you are a “one-marshmallow” person, prone to give into short-term temptations?

In that case, you have to find ways to protect yourself from yourself.  One important thing you can do is to remove temptations from your environment.  You cannot give in to playing video games rather than studying if you don’t have any video games in the house.  You cannot eat too many potato chips if you don’t buy them. 

A second thing you can do is to engage with people around you to help you achieve your long-term goals.  Find a study partner and work with them on classwork.  Get an exercise buddy and let that person nag you to go to the gym.  Spend more time with people who have achieved the kind of success you hope for.  Their goals and habits will start to affect the way you act.

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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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