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Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.
Essays and Blogs Concerning Mental and Emotional Health

Self-Control and Success (and how to learn better self-control too)

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. Updated: Jul 17th 2006

An article on the SFGate website titled "Self-control is the key to success" recently caught my eye. The article is largely an editorial sort of piece centered around an interesting research finding from the 1970s work of psychologist Walter Mischel. Dr. Mischel studied young (4 year old) children's ability to delay gratification by leaving them in a room with a bell and a marshmallow. He instructed them that he would eventually come back into the room, but not for a while, and that when he did come back, he would bring an additional marshmallow for them to eat. If they could wait for his return, they would have two marshmallows, but if they couldn't wait, they could ring the bell before he returned and then eat the existing marshmallow. Not surprisingly, some children were able to wait and received two marshmallows, while others couldn't stand not being able to eat the candy and gave in early, receiving only one marshmallow. The truly interesting part of the study occurred years later when Dr. Mischel tracked down the children in adulthood and looked at their various levels of achievement.

Not surprisingly, there was a direct relationship between childhood impulsivity and poor adult achievement, and childhood ability to delay gratification and high adult achievement. According to the SFGate story,

"The children who waited longer went on to get higher SAT scores. They got into better colleges and had, on average, better adult outcomes. The children who rang the bell quickest were more likely to become bullies. They received worse teacher and parental evaluations 10 years later and were more likely to have drug problems at age 32."

The study itself is interesting, but it is the ramifications for educational policy that are the heart of the article which argues that the current focus on endless achievement testing in the schools is misguided (well, duh!), and that there ought to be programs out there to help students learn to better delay gratification. A vital componant of a child's ability to delay gratification, the author argues, is to help that child learn that there is a stable long term to invest in. Too many children's lives are disrupted by one family crisis after another (e.g., abuse, drugs, poverty, relationship violence, etc.), says the author, to which I say, "Amen brother".

"What works, says Jonathan Haidt, the author of "The Happiness Hypothesis," is creating stable, predictable environments for children, in which good behavior pays off -- and practice. Young people who are given a series of tests that demand self-control get better at it. "

It's a pretty good little article and worth reading (despite the fact that I've restated most of it here). Please check it out.

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. was Director of Mental Help Net from 1999 to 2011. Presently, he is an Oakland Psychologist (Lic#PSY25695) in private practice offering evidence-based acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and addressing a range of life problems. Contact Dr. Dombeck by calling 510-900-5123, send Dr. Dombeck email or visit Dr. Dombeck's practice website for more information.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

Self conrol - Clarissa - Aug 14th 2009

I tend to disagree with the delayed gratification theory. I've been raised in a what you may say disfunctional family environment and I was exposed to all five degrees of abuse. As a young child and a scholar, even a university student I have always forced myself to take the long harder route to success and in my experience of assesing other peers faliurs found that no matter how hard or patient some people try and suppress their feelings, they simply get no reward or gratification.

Amazing Tools - Eduardo - Oct 23rd 2006
I love your website and the amount of information and self help tools you offer for the readers. I myself am a psychology grad student and started a blog that deals with self help tools as well, although its in its developing stage, I am sure it will grow to be great. My site is and you can visit it whenever you want and hope you will enjoy i. To the people from, amazing information! Eduardo

Self Control Endorsed - Pat - Aug 5th 2006
The "delayed gratification" failure was at the root of many of the people I taught in public schools, then later attempted to help with career and job development in my career in corporate training. I'm retired now, but I still remember these people. They just couldn't suffer today briefly for a longer, even lifetime, gain. They wouldn't even suffer for a day! I remember my husband who taught math saying that the only way to learn math is working problems, and he'd give 20 to his class per homework assignment, but many would stop at No. 5 or so, and just quit. Then they'd get mad when they got F's on tests! On an adult level, I certainly heard many more plans and hopes and enrollment than I actually saw completion of any courses or new skills, despite any amount of assistance. People just couldn't take it through to completion. You're right to say we should bring up children to stick it out for the longterm goals. On this topic of "delay" belongs the adult students who try to go to these quickie degree online universities, and wind up uneducated for their professional lives. They pay expensive tuitions and get nothing for it, because they can't stand to slog through a full Bachelor's or Master's program at a traditional college. It's just a shame.

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