42-15880497.jpgHow long would you wait for a treat?

Researchers put four-year-old children, one at a time, in a small room with a treat (a toy, marshmallow, or cookie) and told them they could have the treat whenever they wanted, or they could wait 15 minutes until the scientist came back and then they could have two. Some kids (low delayers) could barely wait for the researcher to leave the room. Others, the high delayers, about 30%, managed to wait.

Fast forward a decade or two. How do you think the lives of these kids played out? Any difference in life situations?

The low delayers “seemed more likely to have behavorial problems, both at home and at school. They got lower S.A.T. scores. They struggled in stressful situations, often having 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, 210 points higher than that of the kid who could only wait 30 seconds.” (The New Yorker, “Don’t: The Secret of Self-Control,” May 18, 2009, p.26)

Often we assumed that “raw intelligence was the most important variable when it came to predicting success in life.” Perhaps that is wrong or at least simplistic. It seems that “intelligence is largely at the mercy of self control: even the smartest kids still need to do their homework.” What if self control is the most important variable?

Are will power and self control inherited traits or fixed personality traits?

Turns out that will power and self control are a matter of mental focus. The key to resisting the treat is NOT raw will power but rather the ability to distract our minds, to think about something else, what scientists like to call the “strategic allocation of attention.” Instead of obsessing over the treat (a sure fire way to fail), the successful high delaying kids distracted themselves by “covering their eyes, playing underneath the desk or singing songs from Sesame Street….” Their desire was not defeated per se, it was merely out witted. When the researchers taught the kids a few mental games, such as pretending the treat was a picture and visualizing a frame around it or that a marshmallow was just a cloud, the success rate improved dramatically.

“All I’ve done is give them some tips from their mental user’s manual…. 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.”

So if four-year-olds can learn to significantly increase their will power by use of a few “mental transformations,” learning to see the world differently, does that mean that there is hope for us adults?

Closing Quotes

“Being forced to work, and forced to do your best, will breed in you temperance and self-control, diligence and strength of will, cheerfulness and content, and a hundred virtues which the idle will never know.” — Charles Kingsley, English professor, historian, and novelist

“Quarrel not at all. No man resolved to make the most of himself can spare time for personal contention. Still less can he afford to take all the consequences, including the vitiating of his temper and loss of self control.” — Abraham Lincoln

“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self control.” — Galatians 5:22