Last updated on 16th July 2011
Over the last few days I've written a series of four blog posts on self-control - the first was "Self-control, conscientiousness, grit, emotion regulation, willpower - whatever word you use, it's sure important to have it" and the most recent "Self-control, conscientiousness, grit ... how do you measure it?". These posts have highlighted how self-control is right in the brain and guts of what it takes to be an effective human being. In the latter post, I quoted Duckworth and Kern's 2011 meta-analysis which states "Our conceptualization of self-control emphasizes ‘‘top-down''processes that inhibit or obviate impulses, and thus implicitly assumes ‘‘bottom-up'' psychological processes that generate these impulses. While individuals surely vary in what they find tempting ... given that adults and children across cultures reliably rate themselves lower in self-control than in any other character strength (Peterson, 2006), it seems reasonable to assume that almost everyone is tempted by something." This "two system" model echoes Metcalfe & Mischel's 1999 paper "A hot/cool-system analysis of delay of gratification: dynamics of willpower" and the ideas of several other research teams too. To an extent, Duckworth & Kern link the bottom-up impulse generating process to the personality trait of extraversion-linked sensation seeking (and to neuroticism-linked urgency). The top down control processes - for example, planning & perseverance - they link more with the personality trait of conscientiousness. They suggest that brain subcortical, dopaminergic-mediated, sensation seeking probably peaks in late adolescence whereas the psychological processes associated with inhibitory control, premeditation & perseverance correspond to slowly maturing brain frontal areas. And elsewhere Duckworth comments "Self-controlled individuals are more adept than their impulsive counterparts at regulating their behavioral, emotional, and attentional impulses to achieve long-term goals."
Most of us develop increased self-control as we mature; this is part of the process of growing up into becoming a functional adult. And how to be a high-functioning adult is at the core of this website's focus on stress, health & wellbeing. To work on nurturing our self-control is potentially a particularly productive lever for improving so much that's important for flourishing & happiness. We know it's possible. A 2009 article about Walter Mischel and his famous delay of gratification, marshmallow experiments with 4 year olds (see the New Yorker, page 30 of the May 18 edition), reported "When he and his colleagues taught children a simple set of mental tricks - such as pretending the candy is only a picture, surrounded by an imaginary frame - he dramatically improved their self-control. The kids who hadn't been able to wait 60 seconds could now wait fifteen minutes. 'All I've done is given them some tips from their mental user manual,' Mischel says. 'Once you realize that will power is just a matter of controlling your attention and thoughts, you can really begin to increase it'". Sadly, probably the majority of children & adolescents with poor self-control grow up into adults with poor self-control with many linked problems - poorer physical health, more broken relationships, worse job outcomes, increased levels of addiction and higher crime rates. However, as the New Yorker interview goes on to report - "Mischel is particularly excited by the example of the substantial subset of people who failed the marshmallow test as four-year-olds but ended up becoming high-delaying adults. 'This is the group I'm most interested in,' he says. 'They have substantially improved their lives.' Mischel is preparing a large-scale study involving hundreds of schoolchildren ... to see if self-control skills can be taught. Although he previously showed that children did much better on the marshmallow test after being taught a few simple 'mental transformations', such as pretending the marshmallow was a cloud, it remains unclear if these new skills persist over the long term. In other words, do the tricks work only during the experiment or do the children learn to apply them at home, when deciding between homework and television?"
Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania is leading this programme. "The scientists have some encouraging preliminary results - after just a few sessions, students show significant improvements in the ability to deal with hot emotional states - but they are cautious about predicting the outcome of the long-term study ... Mischel's main worry is that, even if his lesson plan proves to be effective, it might still be overwhelmed by variables the scientists can't control, such as the home environment. He knows that it's not enough just to teach kids mental tricks - the real challenge is turning those tricks into habits, and that requires years of diligent practice. 'This is where your parents are important,' Mischel says. 'Have they established rituals that force you to delay on a daily basis? Do they encourage you to wait? And do they make waiting worthwhile? According to Mischel, even the most mundane routines of childhood - such as not snacking before dinner, or saving up your allowance, or holding out until Christmas morning - are really sly exercises in cognitive training: we're teaching ourselves how to think to outsmart our desires. But Mischel isn't satisfied with such an informal approach. 'We should give marshmallows to every kindergartner,' he says. 'We should say, 'You see this marshmallow? You don't have to eat it. You can wait. Here's how.'"
The great news is that the research is beginning to roll in - we can teach ourselves to increase self-control and achieve longer-term aims that are important to us. This can be done as an across-the-board project - building our "self-control muscle" so that it can help us in many different situations. It can also be done in a focused way - to boost self-control and be more successful at achieving a particular target goal. See tomorrow's post - "Building willpower: it's like strengthening & nourishing a muscle" - for more details on how this can be done effectively.