Dan ArielyBack to OpinionDan Ariely

Wait for another marshmallow?

Some (scientific) lessons in self-control

The scientific community is increasingly coming to realize how central self-control is to many important life outcomes. We have always known about the impact of socioeconomic status and IQ, but these are factors that are highly resistant to interventions. In contrast, self-control may be something that we can tap into to make sweeping improvements in life outcomes.

Photo: Flickr/Steve Hutchinson

If you think about the environment we live in, you will notice how it is essentially designed to challenge every grain of our self-control. Businesses have the means and motivation to get us to do things NOW, not later. Krispy Kreme wants us to buy a dozen doughnuts while they are hot; Best Buy wants us to buy a television before we leave the store today; even our physicians want us to hurry up and schedule our annual checkup.

There is not much place for waiting in today’s marketplace. In fact, you can think about the whole capitalist system as being designed to get us to take action and spend money now, and those businesses that are more successful in that do better and prosper (at least in the short term). And this, of course, continuously tests our ability to resist temptation and for self-control.

It is in this very environment that it’s particularly important to understand what’s going on behind the mysterious force of self-control.

Several decades ago, Walter Mischel* started investigating the determinants of delayed gratification in children. He found that the degree of self-control independently exerted by preschoolers who were tempted with small rewards (but told they could receive larger rewards if they resisted) is predictive of grades and social competence in adolescence.

A recent study by colleagues of mine at Duke** demonstrates very convincingly the role that self-control plays not only in better cognitive and social outcomes in adolescence, but also in many other factors and into adulthood. In this study, the researchers followed 1,000 children for 30 years, examining the effect of early self-control on health, wealth and public safety. Controlling for socioeconomic status and IQ, they show that individuals with lower self-control experienced negative outcomes in all three areas, with greater rates of health issues like sexually transmitted infections, substance dependence, financial problems including poor credit and lack of savings, single-parent child-rearing, and even crime. These results show that self-control can have a deep influence on a wide range of activities. And there is some good news: if we can find a way to improve self-control, maybe we could do better.

Where does self–control come from?

When we consider these individual differences in the ability to exert self-control, the real question is where they originate: Are they differences in pure, unadulterated ability (i.e., one is simply born with greater self-control), or are these differences a result of sophistication (a greater ability to learn and create strategies that help overcome temptation)?

In other words, are the kids who are better at self-control able to control, and actively reduce, how tempted they are by the immediate rewards in their environment (see picture on left), or are they just better at coming up with ways to distract themselves and this way avoid acting on their temptation (see picture on right)?

It may very well be the latter. A hint is found in the videos of the children who participated in Mischel’s experiments. It’s clear that all of the children had a difficult time resisting one immediate marshmallow to get more later. However, we also see that the children most successful at delaying rewards spontaneously created strategies to help them resist temptations. Some children sat on their hands, physically restraining themselves, while others tried to redirect their attention by singing, talking or looking away. Moreover, Mischel found that all children were better at delaying rewards when distracting thoughts were suggested to them. Here is a modern recreation of the original Mischel experiment:

A helpful metaphor is the tale of Ulysses and the sirens. Ulysses knew that the sirens’ enchanting song could lead him to follow them, but he didn’t want to do that. At the same time, he also did not want to deprive himself of hearing their song; so he asked his sailors to tie him to the mast and fill their ears with wax to block out the sound. In this way, he could hear the song of the sirens but resist their lure.

Was Ulysses able to resist temptation (the first path)? No, but he was able to come up with a very useful strategy that prevented him from acting on his impulses (the second path). Now, Ulysses’ solution was particularly clever because he got to hear the song of the sirens but he was unable to act on it. The kids in Mischel’s experiments did not need this extra complexity, and their strategies were mostly directed at distracting themselves (more like the sailors who put wax in their ears).

It seems that Ulysses’ and kids’ ability to exert self-control is less connected to a natural ability to be Zen-like in the face of temptations, and more linked to the ability to reconfigure our environment (tying ourselves to the mast) and modulate the intensity by which it tempts us (filling our ears with wax).

If this is the case, it is good news because it is probably much easier to teach people tricks to deal with self-control issues than to train them in a Zen-like ability to avoid experiencing temptation when it is so close to our faces.

* Mischel W, Shoda Y, Rodriguez MI (1989) Delay of gratification in children. Science. 244:933-938.

** Moffitt TE, Arseneault L, Belsky D, Dickson N, Hancox RJ, Harrington H, Houts R, Poulton R, Roberts B, Ross S, Sears MR, Thomson WM & Caspi A (2011) A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth and public safety. PNAS. 108:2693-2698. Read the original PNAS piece.

Dan Ariely is the James B. Duke professor of behavioral economics at Duke University. His latest book, “The Upside of Irrationality,” was released in 2010. This essay originally appeared on his blog.

 

Comments

  • Glutenfreeteacups

    Learning self-control allows a person to have self-mastery. To act instead of be acted upon. I admire the Mormon religion for their doctrines of self-control: to not drink alcohol, to get married before having sex, and to be self-reliant through provident living.

  • Jenny

    On a slightly unrelated note, when is “Need to Know” going to show pro-life advocates sharing their views.  On the May 6 show, you had three pro-abortion women talking about the subject of “reproductive rights”.  It was mentioned that pro-life advocates would be featured later in the month.  Why weren’t they?  Would it have something to do with this view of the Executive Producer of the show, Shelley Lewis:

    Those of us who have taken our rights for granted since Roe v. Wade got a huge wake up call from the Supreme Court last week. But the alarm has been ringing for years.

  • Mhonis

    Interesting how self control appears to have an element of pain, or at least discomfort. After viewing the “Marshmallow” video I was not surprised to see, children appearing to be in stress, discomfort, pain…. Now we need to teach parents not to give in to, misread or take to seriously, their children’s reactions to situations (opportunities) where they could be learning / developing self control.

  • Dinaandscottbilo

    It cracks me up how people keep judging others’ success, worth, etc. on their relationship with food. You can be overweight yet still lead a successful life ya know…no wonder there is such discrimination about it…

  • Kristina

    Fascinating to me, because I have an eight year old who has great self control.  She still has Halloween and Valentine’s candy, and she has access to it, but she is only supposed to have it if she asks me first….and she has restrained herself.  I’ve watched her learn these skills, and seen how they impact her.  She has gotten better at practicing piano (she enjoys playing, but not the process of learning a new song), homework (she’s learned to get it done and THEN play), cleaning her room, holding off on purchases (yesterday she could have had new shoes, but not in her favorite color, so she agreed to wait until we found the perfect one).  We have worked hard together on developing these traits, and I am excited to think about the long term repercussions.

  • Redchevy54

    Maybe we can link this article to pro-life by thinking about the choice of having sex when you are not prepared to keep the baby. The self control required to control appetites and passions is relevant to the discussion.