Self-control: The key to success?

About forty years ago, Psychologist Walter Mischel from Stanford conducted this experiment with four-year olds testing their ability to demonstrate self-control. The experiment called for the child to be alone in the room with a marshmallow on a plate with the promise of an additional marshmallow if they can wait for 15 minutes. On the other hand, the child would forfeit the additional marshmallow if they rang a bell. (This post is inspired by a great article in The New Yorker by Jonah Lehrer.)

Most of the kids participating could wait about three minutes, while some waited the entire fifteen minutes and some as soon as the researcher left the room. So here is the kicker, Mischel decides to follow up with the children that participated in the experiment some forty years later to see how they are doing and

“Once Mischel began analyzing the results, he noticed that low delayers, the children who rang the bell quickly, seemed more likely to have behavioral problems, both in school and at home. They got lower S.A.T. scores. They struggled in stressful situations, often had trouble paying attention, and found it difficult to maintain friendships. The child who could wait fifteen minutes had an S.A.T. score that was, on average, two hundred and ten points higher than that of the kid who could wait only thirty seconds.”


“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 will 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.”

What I like about this article is that it puts to rest this notion that being smart is the key to success when in fact, the ability to see things through is more important. The results Mischel lays out are more predictive than raw IQ scores. And then I thought about how I am now and whether or not I would have been able to wait out for the other marshmallow. I doubt that I would have been able to wait the entire fifteen minutes. Shoot, I sometimes, can barely wait to go back for another chocolate pudding. ☺

I wonder though what examples from adulthood could be applied now that would speak to one’s ability to demonstrate self-control. I have a list of ideas that I want to talk over with Dr. Mischel.

-An adult’s ability to drink one glass of juice (especially) if the container is relatively full) and not go for another glass until they are actually thirsty.

-An adult’s ability to refrain from sexual intercourse.

-An adult’s ability to complete multi-year commitments (e.g. grad/professional school, overseas assignments, etc.)

The list could go and on but let me ask the broader SuperSpade community whether they are confident that based on who they are now, do they think they would be able wait for the second marshmallow. Are you pleased with your level of self-control? How has your level of self-control helped or hurt you in your personal and/or professional life?

And please believe that when I have kids, we will be practicing the marshmallow experiment. Stay up fam,


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5 responses to “Self-control: The key to success?”

  1. Garlin II says :


    That New Yorker piece was in my reading list, and I just read it this morning. It’s fascinating.

    The quote that stuck out most to me:

    Once you realize that will power is just a matter of learning how to control your attention and thoughts, you can really begin to increase it.

    The tests you suggest for adults are interesting ones. I’d be interested in seeing this type of analysis combined with studies about the divorce rate. I wonder if “low-delayers” are more likely to get divorced?

    I’ve bee reading a lot about the cognitive sciences and behavioral economics recently. I think it’s my new vice, along with journalism.

    One Love. One II.

  2. Billione says :

    WOW! This was quite interesting. I have self control but I exert it based on the situation. While I may find it difficult to “refrain from sexual intercourse” I find no difficulty not eating a marshmallow. Meaning, I can do anything I set my mind to. i find this subject fascinating.

  3. Ellen says :

    I wonder how this ties in with ADHD?

  4. Brandon Q. says :

    @G I think you raise an interesting question about divorce rates. I would assume that being unable to say, control how much you spend leads to fights over money. I don’t know the exact # but a high percentage of marriages end due to fights over finances.

    On another point, it is interesting to consider what one has to do (outside of pressure of deadlines) control their attention and thoughts.

    @ Ellen This is interesting because I wonder how kids with ADHD would perform on the tests before and after their medication.

    @Billione Are the times when you choose not to use self control a demonstration of not having self-control. How would you answer G’s question about controlling your attention and thoughts?

  5. Billione says :

    Yes, there are times when I don’t use self control. They are mostly situations that are private and.or have no immediate/foreseeable impact on someone else. Like over eating, spending too much money, or masturbating too many times in one day. (Too much info, I KNOW.)

    I agree that “Once you realize that will power is just a matter of learning how to control your attention and thoughts, you can really begin to increase it.”

    I use this type of thinking on a regular basis, though I have not articulated it in the same manner. When I became a vegetarian, I controlled my thoughts by finding ways to rationalize what I would eat and would not. For example, I rationalized not eating meat by not classifying it as edible. Like snakes don’t classify snickers as food.

    I also think about the consequences of my actions and use that to control my attention and thoughts. It am better at it now, but when i was younger, it was WAY TOO HARD!

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