When I am asked to summarize the fundamental message from research on self-control, I recall Descartes’s famous dictum cogito, ergo sum—“I think, therefore I am.” What has been discovered about mind, brain, and self-control lets us move from his proposition to “I think, therefore I can change what I am.” Because changing how we think, we can change what we feel, do, and become. If that leads to the question “But can I really change?,” I reply with what George Kelly said to his therapy clients when they kept asking him if they could get control of their lives. He looked straight into their eyes and said, “Would you like to?”
Walter Mischel’s research has an overall positive bent on the topics of self-control and discipline. His most discussed study, the famed Marshmallow Test, has been used by editorialists and blabbermouths all over the world to proclaim all sorts of things that he doesn’t necessarily believe, such as discipline being hardwired at birth. I got the impression that he wrote this book primarily to set the record straight.
Mischel is very clear that the most important determiner of self-control in any given situation is context. The example he uses is Bill Clinton: the man had the discipline to get a Rhodes Scholarship, Yale law degree, and rise to the most powerful political position in the world, all while showing no restraint around junk food or pretty young interns. A large portion of the book is dedicated to describing the myriad of ways available to frame a situation to allow for the most controlled response possible. The book makes you confront the question of how to delay gratification and resist temptation in a world rife with libidinous distractions and mindless entertainments.
The basic idea that drove my work and motivated me to write this book was my belief, and the findings, that the ability to delay immediate gratification for the sake of future consequences in an acquirable cognitive skill.
The ability to delay gratification and resist temptations has been a fundamental challenge since the dawn of civilization. It is central to the Genesis story of Adam and Eve’s temptation in the Garden of Eden, and a subject of the ancient Greek philosophers, who named the weakness of the will akrasia. Over the millennia, willpower was considered an immutable trait—you either had it or you didn’t—making those low in willpower victims of their biological and social histories and the forces of the momentary situation. Self-control is crucial for the successful pursuit of long-term goals. It is equally essential for developing the self-restraint and empathy needed to build caring and mutually supportive relationships. It can help people avoid becoming entrapped early in life, dropping out of school, becoming impervious to consequences, or getting stuck in jobs they hate. It is the “master aptitude” underlying emotional intelligence, essential for constructing a fulfilling life. And yet, despite its evident importance, it was excluded from serious scientific study until my students and I demystified the concept, created a method to study it, showed its critical role for adaptive functioning, and parsed the psychological processes that enable it.
While not guaranteeing success and a rosy future, self-control ability greatly improves the chances, helping us make the tough choices and sustain the effort needed to reach our goals. How well it works depends not just on skills but on internalizing goals and values that direct the journey, and on motivation that is strong enough to overcome the setbacks along the route.
The Marshmallow Test was not designed as a “test.” n fact, I have always had serious doubts about most psychological tests that try to predict important real-life behavior. I’ve often pointed to the limitations of many of the personality tests commonly used, and I’ve resolved never to create one myself. My students and I designed the procedure not to test children to see how well they did, but rather to examine what enabled them to delay gratification if and when they wanted to.
In the high delayers, the prefrontal cortex area, which is used for effective problem solving, creative thinking, and control of impulsive behavior, was more active. In contrast, in the low delayers, the ventral striatum was more active, especially when they were trying to control their reactions to emotionally hot, alluring stimuli. This area, located in the deeper, more primitive part of the brain, is linked to desire, pleasure, and addictions.
Discussing these findings with the press, BJ Casey noted that whereas low delayers seemed to be driven by a stronger engine, high delayers had better mental brakes. This study made a key point. Individuals who had lifelong low self-control on our measures did not have difficulty controlling their brains under most conditions of everyday life. Their distinctive impulse control problems in behavior and in their brain activity were evident only when they were faced with very attractive temptations.
Successful delayers created all sorts of ways to distract themselves and to cool the conflict and stress they were experiencing. They transformed the aversive waiting situation by inventing imaginative, fun distractions that took the struggle out of willpower: they composed little songs (“This is such a pretty day, hooray”; “This is my home in Redwood City”), made funny and grotesque faces, picked their noses, cleaned their ear canals and toyed with what they discovered there, and created games with their hands and feet, playing their toes as if they were piano keys. When all other distractions were exhausted, some closed their eyes and tried to go to sleep—like one little girl who finally dropped her head into her folded arms on the table and fell into a deep slumber, her face inches from the signal bell. While these tactics were a marvel to behold in preschoolers, they are familiar to anyone who has ever been trapped in the front row at a boring lecture.
More than half a century ago, the Canadian cognitive psychologist Daniel Berlyne distinguished between two aspects of any stimulus. First, a tempting, appetitive stimulus has a consuming, arousing, motivating quality: it makes you want to eat the marshmallow,and when you do it’s pleasurable. Second, it also provides descriptive cues that give information about its non-emotional, cognitive features: it’s round white, thick, soft, edible. So the effect the stimulus has on us depends on how we represent it mentally. An arousing representation focuses on the motivating, hot qualities of the stimulus—the chewy, sweet quality of the marshmallows or the feel of the inhaled cigarette smoke for the tobacco addict. This hot focus automatically triggers the impulsive reaction: to eat it or smoke it. A cool representation, in contrast, focuses on the more abstract, cognitive, informational aspects of the stimulus (it’s round, white, soft, small) and tells you what it is like, without making it more tempting. It allows you to “think cool” about it rather than just grab it.
The emotions the preschoolers experienced also affected how soon they rang the bell. If we suggested before leaving them alone with their temptations that while waiting they might think of some things that made them sad (like crying with no one to help them), they stopped waiting as fast as if we had suggested thinking about the treats. If they thought about fun things, they waited almost three times longer: close to 14 minutes on average. Give nine-year-old children compliments (for example, on their drawings), and they will choose delayed rather than immediate rewards much more often than when given negative feedback on their work. And what holds for children applies to adults. In short, we are less likely to delay gratification when we feel sad or bad. Compared with happier people, those who are chronically prone to negative emotions and depression also tend to prefer immediate rewards over delayed, more valued rewards.
The power is not in the stimulus, however, but in how it is mentally appraised: if you change how you think about it, its impact on what you feel and do changes. The tempting chocolate mousse on the restaurant dessert tray loses its allure if you imagine a cockroach just snacked on it in the kitchen. Although Shakespeare’s Hamlet personified tragically unconstructive ways to appraise experience, he made this point insightfully: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” As Hamlet also showed, trying to change how we think about or “mentally represent” stimuli and experiences that have become deeply ingrained can be as futile as trying to be your own brain surgeon. How one might cognitively reappraise events more easily and effectively is the central challenge for cognitive behavior therapies—and for anyone seriously committed to trying to change well-established dispositions and habits.
The key question that drove this work was: does knowledge of the strategies that make delay easier also give the child—and the adult, for that matter—greater freedom from being controlled and pushed around by temptations and pressures they are trying to resist? We found the answer many years later in a study of boys with impulsitivity problems who were living in a summer camp residential treatment program (described in Chapter 15). Those who understand strategies for delaying gratification waited longer on the Marshmallow Test than those who did not have this knowledge, and this was true even when the roles of age and verbal intelligence were controlled and removed statistically. It became clear that enhancing such understanding could become a goal for parents and teachers that might be fairly easy to achieve.
Correlations that are meaningful, consistent, and significant statistically can allow broad generalizations for a population—but not necessarily confident predictions for an individual.
We still have a limbic system that works much as it did for our evolutionary ancestors. It remains our emotionally hot Go! system. specialized for quick reactions to strong, emotional-arousing stimuli that automatically trigger pleasure, pain, and fear. At birth it is already fully functional, making the infant cry when hungry or in pain. Although these days we rarely need it later in life for dealing with angry lions, it’s still invaluable for avoiding menacing strangers in dark alleys or a swerving vehicle on an icy road. The hot system gives life its emotional zest. It motivates preschoolers to want two marshmallows, but it also makes it hard for them to endure the wait.
By the middle of the second year of life, toddlers already differ greatly in how anxiously or securely or ambivalently attached they are to their primary caretakers. What they do during such separations and reunions allows a peek into the quality of their relationships and their coping skills early in life.
At birth, infants are controlled almost completely by heir internal state at each moment and bu caregivers on whom they depend. In the infant’s first few months outside the womb, soothing, rocking, deeding, and cuddling become a major job for caregivers, night and day. How lovingly and caringly infants are nurtured, or how cruelly and coldly they are neglected or abused, is inscribed in their brains and changes who they become. It is critical to keep infants’ stress levels from becoming chronically activated and to promote the formation of close, warm attachments so the babies feel secure and safe.
While theses skills are still in the early stages in the preschooler, by age seven, children’s attention-control skills and the underlying neural circuits are surprisingly similar to those of adults. The child’s experiences in the first half dozen years of life become roots for the ability to regulate impulses, exercise self-restraint, control the expression of emotions, and develop empathy, mindfulness, and conscience.
The message here is that parents who overcontrol their toddlers risk undermining the development of their children’s self-control skills, while those who support and encourage autonomy in problem-solving efforts are likely to maximize their children’s chances of coming home from preschool eager to tell them how they got their two marshmallows.
To reiterate, the two systems—one hot to deal with immediate rewards and threats, the other cool to deal with delayed consequences—act together: as one becomes more active, the other becomes less active. The challenge is to know when it’s best to let the hot system guide your course, and when (and how) to get the coll system to wake up.
We may all be both grasshopper and ant, but whether the prefrontal ant or the limbic grasshopper in us emerge at any given time depends on the temptation in the particular situation and how we appraise and think about it. As Oscar Wilde famously noted, “I can resist anything except temptation.”
What infants are equipped to understand seems limited mostly by our ability as adults to figure it out.
Parents have long recognized that their babies differ greatly in temperament, and they see these innate differences in emotional reactions soon after birth. These differences were captured in the ancient Greco-Roman typology that linked innate emotional dispositions to four vital body humors, which served as the early version of DNA. In that theory, when blood was predominant, the person was sanguine, characterized as good -natured and cheerful; black bile underlay the melancholic individual who tended to be anxious and moody; a readiness to be angry and irritable, due to too much yellow bile, marked the choleric; and when phlegm predominated, the person was phlegmatic, or easygoing and slow to become aroused.
But as the research on heritability deepens, we see that nature and nurture are not easily separated. Human dispositions and behavior patterns, including character and personality, attitudes, and political beliefs, reflect the complex effects of genes (usually multiple genes) whose expressions are shaped by environmental determinants throughout the course of life. Who we are and what we become reflects the interplay of both genetic and environmental influences in an enormously complex choreography. It is time to put away the “How much?” question because it cannot be answered simply. As the Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb noted long ago, it’s like asking, What the more important determinant of a rectangle’s size: its length or its width.
There is consistency in the expression of traits like conscientiousness, honesty, aggression, and sociability. But it is consistency contextualized within specific types of situations: Henry is always conscientious, if at work but not if at home; Liz is warm and friendly, if with close friends but not if at a big party; the governor is trustworthy if dealing with his state’s budget, but not if surrounded by attractive assistants. Consequently, we have to look at the particular situations in which people are or are not conscientious, sociable, and so on if we want to understand and predict what they are likely to do in the future.
As my grandmother used to tell everybody, the magical ingredient in making an exceptionally successful life is what she called sitzfleisch. She meant sitting on your behind and putting in the huge effort needed to get the job done. My grandmother’s focus on sitzfleisch was echoed a lifetime later by Bruce Springsteen, the rock musician, songwriter, and performer, who seems to personify the qualities that underlie a vibrant, fully realized life. Born in 1949, Springsteen has continued to perform brilliantly into his sixties, exhilarating his adoring crowds, and has been the subject of historical exhibitions at the National Constitution Center and at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum. Asked before a performance what he thought the inner qualities were that made him the artist and performer he has become, he said, “I probably worked harder than anybody else I saw.”
It is both nature and nurture, not in opposition but influencing each other reciprocally as their boundaries blur. How a person interacts with that world of opportunities and constraints drives the life that unfolds.
Each child who waited successfully had a distinctive methodology for self-control, but they all shared three features of executive function: First, they had to remember and actively keep in mind their chosen goal and the contingency (“If I eat the one now, I don’t get the two later”). Second, they had to monitor their progress toward their goal and make the necessary corrections by shifting their attention and cognitions flexibly between goal-oriented thoughts and temptation-reducing techniques. Third, they had to inhibit impulsive responses—like thinking about how appealing the temptations were or reaching out to touch them—that would prevent them from attaining their goal.
While the optimists deal with failure constructively, the pessimists use the same experience to confirm their gloomy expectations, believing it’s their fault, and they try to avoid thinking about it, assuming there is nothing they can do. Seligman says, “College entrance exams measure talent, while explanatory style tells you who gives up. It is the combination of reasonable talent and the ability to keep going in the face of defeat that leads to success…What you need to know about someone is whether they will keep going when things get frustrating.”
The ant in Aesop’s fable instinctively knows what is has to do to prepare for the future, and when summer comes it drags off the food it will need for the winter. But we don’t have the ant’s instincts, and evolution has not yet adapted our brain for dealing concretely with the distant future. We easily become anxious about frightening events that are imminent but rarely visualize the future in vivid, hot terms. Those rose-colored glasses and the feel-good psychological immune system protect most of us from dwelling on such anxieties. They allow us to avoid focusing on terrifying prospects like cancer, impoverishment, lonely old age, and ill health, and if these anxieties do become vivid, most of us soon self-distract.
If you see more continuity between yourself now and yourself in the future, you probably put more value on delayed rewards and less value on immediate rewards and are less impatient that people who view their future selves as strangers. As the researchers point out, if we feel greater continuity with who we will become, we might also be willing to sacrifice more of our present pleasures for the sake of that future self.
Regardless of the measure used, poor childhood self-control significantly predicted negative adult outcomes: worse health, more financial troubles, and more crimes committed.
The depressives, far from seeing themselves through dark lenses as we had presumed, were cursed by twenty-twenty vision: compared with other groups, their self-ratings of positive qualities most closely matched how the observers rated them. In contrast, both the nondepressed psychiatric patients and the control group had inflated self-ratings, seeing themselves more positively than the observers saw them. The depressive patients simply did not see themselves through the rose-colored glasses that the others used when evaluating themselves.
What astonishes me, no matter how often I see it, is the power with which strong negative emotions can trump cool thinking. They can create fallout that distorts not just what we experience in the moment, but also what we expect in the future and how we evaluate ourselves.
The consequences of the illusion of control can be catastrophic, particularly in some financial risk-taking situations, when high self-controllers may feel in control and then fail to react appropriately to external feedback and danger signals. This happened in the real world during the financial disaster of 2008. In 2013, it was simulated and analyzed by Maria Konnikova at Columbia University on five experiments on risk taking when money was at stake, albeit not in the billions. Staying calm, optimistic, and self-confident, the high self-control decision makers disregarded the feedback about their losses, were shielded from stress, and lose more money than the low self-controllers, who became anxious sooner, responded to the feedback, and quit before they went broke. In the end, in some conditions, it is the low self-controllers, with their lessened confidence and heightened anxiety, who can end up ahead.
The benefits, however, may not last. The researchers induced heightened illusory control in the low self-control participants by having them succeed in predicting coin flips, or getting them to recall times when they had made good decisions and had been in high-control situations. Feeling more confident, these participants quickly lost their initial advantage: they started to resemble the high self-controllers—and to make the exact same poor choices (and lose money) as a result.
A schedule of reinforcement that delivers a big payoff at rare, unpredictable times can, in experiments, keep pigeons continuously pecking on a lever forever, as B.F. Skinner and his students demonstrated, and it can seduce gamblers to keep losing until they can’t get another loan.
In short, the psychological immune system protects us from feeling too bad when our predictions fail, but it can also keep us clinging to beliefs in the face of evidence that persistently contradicts them, leading us to make mistakes that have high costs. Optimistic illusions can be hard to disconfirm, even when they burn your feet.
President Clinton had the self-control and delay ability to win a Rhodes scholarship, attain a Yale law degree, and be elected to the U.S. presidency, apparently combined with little desire—perhaps no ability, and certainly no willingness—to exert self-control for particular temptations like junk food and attractive White House interns. Likewise, the judge and the gold star had the self-control skills to excel in the pursuit of their most important career goals, but not in other contexts. To be able to delay gratification and exert self-control is an ability, a set of cognitive skills, that, like any ability, can be used or not used depending primarily on the motivation to use it.
Whether or not self-control skills are used depends on a host of considerations, but how we perceive the situation and the probable consequences, our motivation and goals, and the intensity of the temptation, are especially important. This may seem obvious, but I emphasize it here because it is easily misunderstood. Willpower has been mischaracterized as something other than a “skill” because it is not always exercised consistently over time. But like all skills, self-control skill is exercised only when we are motivated to use it. The skill is stable, but the motivation changes, so does the behavior.
The ability to exert self-control and wait for marshmallows implies neither that it will be exercised in every domain and context nor that it will be used for virtuous goals. People can have excellent self-control skills that they use creatively for good purposes valued by society. They can also use the same skills to create hidden families, offshore bank accounts, and secret lives. They can be responsible, conscientious, and trustworthy in some areas of their lives and not in others. If we look closely at what people really do, not in what they say, across different situations with regard to any dimension of social behavior, it turns out that they are not very consistent.
As the demands for effortful self-control and tedious work escalated, but the incentives did not, the students’ attention and motivation shifted. Rather than having their willpower “muscles” depleted, they probably became fed up, feeling that they had complied sufficiently with the experimenter’s demands to do boring tasks.
As motivation to exert self-control increases, effort continues. With no increase in motivation, it does not. In this interpretation, the reduction in self-control is not due to a loss of resources: it reflects, instead, changes in motivation and attention.
This study suggests that if you want your children to adopt high self-reward standards, it’s a good idea to guide them to adopt those standards and also model them in your own behavior. If you aren’t consistent are are tough on your children but lenient with yourself, there is a good chance they’ll adopt the self-reward standards that you modeled, not the ones you imposed on them.
Self-control involves more than determination; it requires strategies and insights, as well as goals and motivation, to make willpower easier to develop and persistence (often called grit) rewarding in its own right.
We are wonderfully creative at making tepid commitments and then finding endless ways to get around them.
You look again at a painful experience—not through your own eyes, but as if you were observing from a distance, like a fly on the wall, observing what happened to a third party. This change in perspective alters how the experience is appraised and understood. By increasing your psychological distance from the event, you reduce stress, cool the hot system, and can use the prefrontal cortex to reappraise what happened so that you can make sense of it, gain closure, and move on.
The challenge for the parents is to provide the support their child needs and wants, and then let her work on her own, without taking over and doing it for her.
We can also help children develop “incremental growth” mind-sets in which they think of their talents, abilities, intelligence, and social behavior not as reflecting fixed inborn traits but as skills and competencies that they can cultivate if they invest the effort. Rather than looking for good grades and applauding kids for being “so smart,” we can praise them for trying as hard as they can.
But arguably the best answer to the “What can we do to help our children?” question is to model what you would like them to become. How parents and other important figures in a child’s life do or do not control themselves—how they deal with stress, frustrations, and emotions; the standards they use in evaluating their own achievements; their empathy and sensitivity to other people’s feelings; their attitudes, goals, and values; their disciplinary strategies; their lack of discipline—all profoundly influences the child. Parents model and teach children an enormous repertoire of possible reactions to endless challenges, from which children select and transform what fits and works uniquely for them over the course of their own development.
When I am asked to summarize the fundamental message from research on self-control, I recall Descartes’s famous dictum cogito, ergo sum—“I think, therefore I am.” What has been discovered about mind, brain, and self-control lets us move from his proposition to “I think, therefore I can change what I am.” Because by changing how we think, we can change what we feel, do, and become. If that leads to the question “But can I really change?,” I reply with what George Kelly said to his therapy clients when they kept asking hum if they could get control of their lives. He looked straight into their eyes and said, “Would you like to?”