Insights on Self-Control

“In this New York Times article, author Pamela Druckerman reports on a conversation with Walter Mischel, the Columbia University psychologist who conducted the “marshmallow” experiments in the 1950s. His well-known finding was that five-year-olds who could defer gratification – resisting the urge to gobble down a marshmallow or cookie so they could get two when the researcher returned – grew up to be thinner, have higher SAT scores, earn more advanced degrees, use cocaine less, and cope better with stress.
But Mischel (pronounced me-SHELL) says lots of people have drawn the wrong conclusion from his research, believing erroneously that young children’s inability to resist temptation is their lifelong destiny. Self-control can be taught, he says, and that’s especially important for those who are helping low-SES children succeed in school. It also applies to grown-ups trying to resist checking e-mail every few minutes, eating too much bread, yelling at their spouse, or going to bed too late.
“Part of what adults need to learn about self-control is in those videos of 5-year-olds,” says Druckerman. “The children who succeed turn their backs on the cookie, push it away, pretend it’s something inedible like a piece of wood, or invent a song. Instead of staring down the cookie, they transform it into something with less of a throbbing pull on them.” Adults can use similar strategies: Take the bread off the dinner table. When a waiter offers a chocolate mousse, imagine that a cockroach has just crawled across it. When you’re upset, imagine viewing yourself from the outside.
Our brains have two warring parts, explains Mischel. The limbic system demands instant gratification; the prefrontal cortex is rational and goal-oriented. “We don’t need to be victims of our emotions,” he says. “We have a prefrontal cortex that allows us to evaluate whether or not we like the emotions that are running us.” The secret to self-control is training the prefrontal cortex to take control. Specific if-then plans work best: If it’s before noon, I won’t check e-mail or If I feel angry, I will count backward from 10. This is more difficult for children who’ve been exposed to chronic stress – their limbic system is in overdrive. But if their environment changes, their self-control can improve.”

“Learning How to Exert Self-Control” by Pamela Druckerman in The New York Times, September 14, 2014, http://nyti.ms/1x2vckj; Mischel’s about-to-be released book (with Alan Alda) is The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control. – Taken from theMarshall Memo 553
A Weekly Round-up of Important Ideas and Research in K-12 Education
September 22, 2014

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