07/18/2013 12:14 pm ET Updated Sep 17, 2013

Self-Control and 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 a 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 found that the amount of time that children will wait as preschoolers is related to positive outcomes in adolescence, such as higher grades, greater social competence and a better ability to deal with stress.

What is going on with this delay-of-gratification task?

On its face, the task clearly measures some kind of self-control ability. It may, however, also measure other factors, such as 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 for part of a longitudinal study. In addition to this test, there was information from parents and caregivers about each child's ability to focus, attention, impulsivity, temperament and intelligence. In ninth grade, these same students were assessed for their grade point average, achievement test scores, their body mass index (BMI), and their tendency to engage in risky behavior. A variety of other demographic characteristics were also measured, including parental education level, socioeconomic status, 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 the 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 four predicted higher standardized-test scores, higher GPAs and lower body mass indices in ninth grade. Higher intelligence at age four strongly predicts higher standardized-test scores in ninth grade. There is a weak relationship, in which higher intelligence at age four also predicted slightly higher body mass indices 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 in to short-term temptations?

In that case, you have to find ways to protect yourself from yourself. One important thing you can do is 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 people around you to help you achieve your long-term goals. Find a study partner and work with him or her 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.

For more by Art Markman, Ph.D., click here.

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