The May 18 issue of the New Yorker has an interesting piece on self-control and how it relates to children's achievements. Years ago, at the Bing Nursery School on Stanford's campus, psychologist Walter Mischel designed an experiment. He'd put a 4-year-old in a room with some marshmallows. He'd tell the kid that she could have one now, or if she waited for him to return in a few minutes, she could have two. Then he'd leave the kid with a bell and say that if she rang it, he'd come running back and she could have one marshmallow immediately (though she'd forfeit having any more).
As you can imagine, most children were not able to hold out. Some chunk didn't even bother to ring the bell -- they just ate the marshmallows. Others would stare at the treats for 30 seconds and then ring the bell. Another 30%, though, were able to hold out until the researcher returned 15 minutes later. It's not that they didn't like marshmallows. The researchers filmed the children as they sat there waiting, and discovered that they had all sorts of mechanisms for distracting themselves. They'd play games, look at something else in the room, etc. As the New Yorker article puts it, "These kids wrestled with temptation but found a way to resist."
So what, right? Well, follow up studies 3-4 decades later have found that, on the whole, the children able to delay gratification were doing much better in life. In high school, those with the most self-control had SAT scores that were, on average, 210 points higher than the kids who could only wait 30 seconds. The same pattern held in the career world, and in things like body mass index (kids who can't resist a marshmallow can't resist the donuts as grown-ups). As journalist Jonah Lehrer writes, "For decades, psychologists have focused on raw intelligence as the most important variable when it comes to predicting success in life. Mischel argues that intelligence is largely at the mercy of self-control: even the smartest kids still need to do their homework. 'What we're really measuring with the marshmallows isn't power or self-control,' Mischel says. 'It's much more important than that. This task forces kids to find a way to make the situation work for them. They want the second marshmallow, but how can they get it? We can't control the world, but we can control how we think about it.'"
While it's typical New Yorker to downplay IQ, this could be an interesting piece of the puzzle for those dealing with gifted children. In general, people with higher IQs do better in life than those with lower IQs, but there are always plenty of high IQ people who don't seem to be able to succeed in the adult world. Some just don't fit in, but others seem to be shooting themselves in the foot with their inability to pass their college classes if they have to work at it, or hold a job for reasonable periods of time if things don't immediately go their way. Perhaps these people would have scored lower on self-discipline tests as children.
Of course, the other question is whether self-discipline is innate and hard-wired or can be learned. Lehrer raises several points that suggest it can be partially taught. When researchers taught children how to distract themselves from the marshmallows, far more were able to do it. But who knows if that will last past a half-hour research session. Some of the KIPP Academies, known for helping underprivileged children with high standards and strict discipline, are trying specifically to teach children habits of self-control. And some parents do this automatically. No, you can't watch TV or have dessert until after dinner. No, you can't open presents until Christmas morning. You have to wait until after your brother plays with that toy. Maybe these turn out to be very important lessons.