Focus: The Science of Self-Control

Imagine you are sitting on the couch watching your favorite television show after an exceptionally hard day at work. You have your favorite snack planted right next to you on the couch and despite your best efforts, you cannot bring yourself to stop munching on this delicious delicacy. This is an everyday example of a lack of self-control. Some psychologists would say that if you show a lack of self-control in simple tasks like this when you are young, then you are less likely to exhibit self-motivation, persistence in the face of adversity, and a myriad of other positive traits when you are older. This research has been used to illustrate the importance of self-control and delayed gratification in young people  because those who possess the traits above prove to be more successful academically, as well as report higher satisfaction in life, than those who do not possess delayed gratification and self-control.

It appears that the ability to delay gratification and illustrate self-control at a young age creates almost a sure successful future for a child. This has created an emphasis on self-control within the educational community, but what does this mean for those children who do not display delayed gratification and self-control? Is there hope for their future, or are they doomed to live an unsuccessful life simply because they do not display a relatively simple trait at a young age? What if an adult is struggling with self-control, is it too late to change their ways? Certainly, the ability to control oneself and demonstrate actions that delay gratification is useful, but it is less clear if or how one can hone their abilities to do so.

The Marshmallow Task, developed by Stanford Psychologist Michael Mischel, is the foremost and likely the most famous, or infamous, psychological study done on delayed gratification and self-control and the effect these traits may have on future outcomes. Mischel discovered that if a child who was offered a marshmallow (or another tasty snack) could wait an undefined length of time (usually 15-20 minutes) to eat the snack in the hopes of getting double the amount initially promised, then they would have much better outcomes in the future. The results were so drastic, that those children who exhibited self-control and a delay of gratification were reported to have better health, more stable marriages, higher wealth, better academic performance, and even more satisfaction with life overall. These results emphasized the need for certain traits in children in order for them to succeed, specifically the abilities to delay gratification and exhibit self-control. Unsurprisingly, this study and its results interested psychologists as they could investigate how self-control could be related to academic performance, learning objectives, mental health, and a vast array of other areas. Of course, since this study was first published in the 1960s, much more research has been done, and perhaps the way this trait can be understood has also shifted dramatically.

Many researchers were skeptical of the results found by Mischel. Duckworth and Steinberg in their article “Unpacking Self-Control” discuss different ways in which self-control is experienced. Their research suggests that Mischel’s study may not have correctly measured levels of self-control within individuals. Duckworth and Steinberg articulate that in essence, failing to possess self-control results in pursuing short-term gratification at the expense of long-term goals. The authors explain that if researchers do not take into account how ardently a child wants to achieve a long-term goal or how tempting the short-term gratification may be, then a child’s “capacity” for self-control may not be fully comprehended.

Additionally, recent research has called into question exactly how accurate the results of the original “marshmallow task” are. Michaelson and Munakata reviewed the data previously used in the original marshmallow task and found that the relationships between future success and a delay of gratification was not as strong as the relationship between future success and social support . This suggests that perhaps an individual’s amount of social support affects their ability to display self-control, or it affects how they are able to deal with psychological hardships. Therefore, if an individual is in a more supportive home, then they may be better equipped to tackle the struggles they will eventually face. This takes the importance off of self-control specifically and places it on social support. As we know, social support can be fostered in young children through a multitude of ways but can be affected by a number of factors such as socioeconomic status, race, sexuality, parent involvement, and social interactions with peers. If one has a more supportive environment, they are more likely to exhibit a tendency for self-control and delayed gratification and therefore have a better chance at developing a multitude of positive traits. This creates applications in how individuals should create a positive work environment, homelife, and even social group interactions to optimize social support to foster self-control tendencies.

Researchers have investigated ways that abilities to delay gratification and exhibit self-control can be improved. One way this has been done is through an Attentional Training Technique (ATT), which helps to enhance executive control by training individuals through auditory attention exercises. It was discovered that students who took part in the Attentional Training Technique (ATT)  actually improved their ability to delay gratification over a seven day period (as measured by replications of the marshmallow task). From the way it is explained in the article, the Attentional Training Task (ATT) is similar to a meditation in that it requires participants to remain calm for an extended period of time, sit still, and pay special attention to sounds they hear and the way that they may feel. If a short meditation or Attentional Control Technique was implemented in classes, maybe even once a week, this may allow students to develop the skill set necessary to achieve self-control and the ability to exhibit a delay of gratification. Additionally, if workplaces would implement a weekly Attention Training Technique session, it is possible that self-control proclivities would be improved and overall work productivity would be developed.

Although many studies have investigated how self-control tendencies can be improved in young children and students, few have considered how adults can work to improve in controlling their impulses. Of course, the Attentional Training Technique could prove to be effective, but it is doubtful that there is only one way for adults to enhance their inclinations. The limited literature that exists on this topic luckily does provide ways for adults to improve their self-control. For one, research implemented to observe how yoga may affect older  adults’ mood found that one month of yoga helped increase self-motivation tendencies as well as overall psychological health. Yoga even proved to be more beneficial than regular exercise in enhancing self-controlling behavior, perhaps due to the relaxing yet demanding nature of yoga itself. Of course, not everyone can go to a yoga class everyday, but it is still possible that individuals within the workforce could use this to their advantage. This technique could be utilized the same way as the Attentional Training Technique in order to encourage individuals to display more delayed gratification tendencies. If a small chunk of a work week or school week was utilized to do yoga, perhaps individuals would reinforce their self-control abilities and be more productive throughout the week.

Another way in which self-control may be utilized in an academic or professional setting is through System One and System Two thinking. In his extremely influential novel “Thinking Fast and Slow”, Daniel Kahneman explains how the two different systems of thinking work and operate within the human mind. System One thinking is the type of cognitive behavior we exhibit throughout most of our daily life. While it is quick and intuitive, it may cause us to jump to conclusions and make assumptions that simply are not true. An example of when System One thinking would occur would be if someone asked you to finish the saying “bread and…” and you instinctively answered “butter!”.  On the other hand, System Two thinking is less intuitive and far more complex. In the words of Kahneman, System Two “allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations,”. While System One thinking is important for everyday activity, System Two thinking is imperative for the success of the way the brain functions when it is attempting to solve a complex problem, or is under a high-intensity cognitive load. System Two thinking is of the utmost importance to academic and professional success and is, therefore, an area of study for psychologists that could hold several possible real-world applications.

The ability to employ System Two thinking goes hand in hand with self-control. For example, System Two thinking can only be activated in an individual’s mind if they are aware that analytical thinking is necessary for the task. Both students and people within the workforce do virtually the same thing everyday, and it can get monotonous, which leads to not engaging System Two Thinking and solely relying on System One thinking. It would take deep self-control and self-discipline in order to activate System Two thinking when one’s brain assumes that only System One is needed. As stated by Duckworth and Steinberg, most students admit that academic work is one of their least favorite activities; however, they understand that it may be important so they still apply themselves to it. Unfortunately, this same idea may apply to many adults and their everyday jobs. This dislike of doing work may actually benefit students and workers in attempting to initiate system two thinking. When cognitive ease is felt by an individual they will be much less likely to use System Two; however, when there is a sense of cognitive straine, System Two is much more likely to be put into use. Some teachers have found the importance of encouraging System Two thinking in students and before a task that will require System Two thinking they let the students know that they must “put their thinking caps on” and that a difficult question is coming up. This allows young students to get used to utilizing System Two thinking and understanding when it needs to be used; therefore, possibly creating a sense of self-control over the use of System Two Thinking. This same technique could be used in workplaces, in a less childish way of course, in order to initiate System Two thinking and allowing for more self-control over one’s own mind.

From all the discussion above, it is clear that self-control and an ability to delay gratification are certainly imperative to the success of a student and to the prosperity of one’s career; however, perhaps not in the specific ways previously thought. The ability to display self-control is not completely innate and can certainly be developed through certain techniques, such as an attentional training technique or yoga. Additionally, the role that social support plays on self-control and the various positive outcomes that seem to go along with the trait were underestimated in past research. Current research has found that social support plays a major role in the way self-control can manifest into positive outcomes, and therefore this aspect of a child’s education and an individual’s workplace should certainly be considered by teachers, policymakers, and bosses alike. Additionally, it is possible that self-control and a delay of gratification serve as important factors in a person’s ability to operate System Two thinking, which will aid individuals in succeeding in tasks that require analytical thinking. 

Colten Young studies psychology and entrepreneurship at Princeton University.

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