The many education and life benefits of self-control

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There have been many, many studies conducted around the world, that have shown a wide array of benefits that stem from self-control. Walter Mischel's famous 'Marshmallow Test' demonstrated the long-term predictability of high levels of self-control in benefitting an individual at practically every stage of their life. Mischel's results have now been backed up by a number of other studies, including the comprehensive 'Dunedin Study' which has tracked nearly a thousand participants annually since their birth in the early 1970's. So, exactly what kind of benefits has self-control been shown to predict? Here's a sample: 

  • Increased happiness
  • Better health
  • Higher levels of academic success
  • More success in their careers
  • Larger incomes
  • Longer and more satisfying relationships
  • Lower levels of stress and anxiety
  • Lower levels of crime
  • Less addiction to drugs and alcohol
  • A longer life

Based on this list, it's fair to say that self-control is well worth striving for. But what exactly is it?

What exactly is self-control?

According to the Oxford Dictionary, self-control is defined as:

"The ability to control oneself, in particular one's emotions and desires, especially in difficult situations"

Self-control is often described as an executive function, which is a way of saying that it is a cognitive process that is necessary for regulating behaviour in order to achieve goals. In short, if you have good self-control, you are able to adapt or modify your behaviour so that you're more likely to achieve a desired outcome. Self-control is often intertwined with willpower, which can sometimes make it easier for people to understand. Psychologist and author, Kelly McGonigal has been misinterpreted as describing willpower as:

"The ability to do what you really want to do when part of you really doesn’t want to do it."

But McGonigal's own research suggests that while this is partly accurate, willpower and self-control aren't quite as straightforward as simply doing something you don't want to do. McGonigal suggests we should think of willpower and self-control in three ways:

  1. I Will power – as defined above; the ability to what you want to do, when part of you doesn't want to.
  2. I Won't power – the ability to say no, when you need to say no, and yes when you need to say yes.
  3. I Want power – the ability to find motivation when it matters.

Real self-control is about harnessing McGonigal's three powers of I will, I won't, and I want. Being able to do this, not only helps you achieve goals that are important to you, but also avoid situations or behaviours that are likely to be bad for you, in both the near and distant future.

Why is self-control important for good education and life outcomes?

Given the definition of self-control above, it's likely becoming very obvious to you why self-control is considered such a virtuous skill. Having a high degree of self-control will naturally have a very positive influence on education and broader life outcomes when you consider the types of behaviours that it might promote:

  • A focus on activities that lead to better future outcomes, such as practice, study and homework.
  • A great ability to turn down 'fun' activities in order to productive activity such as completing homework or study assignments
  • Increased likelihood to choose healthy alternatives in terms of food and leisure activities
  • An increased ability to say no to unhealthy activities such as smoking, drug taking, drinking, or unsafe sex.
  • The ability to manage emotions in specific situations - including self-restraint against using verbal and/or physical abuse.

Many have looked at the positive effects on behaviour that increased self-control provides and concluded that, while an ideal character or behaviour trait, it's something that we either do or don't have. This of course, leads to the well worn nature versus nurture debate, leaving us with the question of whether self-control is a skill that can be acquired and increased.

Can self-control be taught?

The science here is pretty clear – yes. Self-control is a skill that can be learned and improved and, it can be surprisingly easy to learn, as one example from Walter Mischel's studies indicates. Mischel described a group of young children who were unable to wait for 15 minutes to receive a second marshmallow indicating low self-control. In fact this group were unable to wait even 1 minute! Mischel's team instructed in a self-control technique - in this case to picture the marshmallow as not real. To imagine a frame around it as if it was a picture of a marshmallow rather than the real thing. When applying this technique, children were able to easily increase their self-control and hold out for the full 15 minutes, to receive their reward of a second marshmallow. 

What this tells us is that self-control ability is actually the ability to have strategies to cope with tests of our self-control when they arise. Research by Mischel and many others over the past 40-plus years has provided a number of proven strategies to help children, teens and adults alike to improve their self-control in any given situation.

Self-control and Passion Arena

In understanding the importance of self-control to education success, Passion Arena's programme is structured to support the improvement of student self-control. Our first step is to introduce self-control (along with other core non-cognitive skills) to students so that they understand the benefits of learning and mastering such skills. Then, we'll introduce a series of focused episodes to introduce the specific strategies, encouraging students to test which strategies work best for them, and to apply these strategies to the outcomes and goals that are most important to them.

Watch a Passion Arena episode about self-control

To get an idea of how we introduce our non-cognitive skills and, in particular self-control to students, click the button below to watch a Passion Arena episode that relates to self-control.

Want to find out more about self-control?

Books on self-control:

If you'd like to dive further into understanding self-control, we recommend the following books. Click on the titles for more information.

The Marshmallow Test: Why Self-Control Is The Engine Of Success
By Walter Mischel

The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, And What You Can Do To Get More Of It.
By Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.

Science And Human Behavior 
by B.F Skinner

Self-Control: Developing Amazing Willpower To Achieve Goals That Matter
by Allan Davidson


Videos on self-control:

There are many videos on self-control, but most at some point end up referencing Walter Mischel's famous 'Marshmallow Test'. In the videos below you can hear about the test and, it's implications for teaching self-control from the man himself.


Walter Mischel interview with Charlie Rose on The Marshmallow Test and the benefits of self-control. (9min)

RSA Replay: What Marshmallows Can Tell Us About Self-Control. Presentation from Walter Mischel. (58min)


Academic papers on self-control:

The academic papers below represent a tiny fraction of the research available on self-control, while we hope the studies below prove useful, if you have a specific area of self-control you want to address, we recommend searching Google Scholar

The Strength Model Of Self-Control
Authors: Roy F. Baumeister, Kathleen D. Vohs and Dianne M. Tice. First Published: December 2007

High Self-Control Predicts Good Adjustment, Less Pathology, Better Grades, and Interpersonal Success
Authors: June P. Tangney, Roy F. Baumeister, Angie Luzio Boone. First published: April 2004

A Procedure To Teach Self-Control To Children With Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
Authors: Lisa M. Binder, Mark R. Dixon, Patrick M. Ghezzi. First published: June 2000

The Development of Children’s Knowledge of Self-Control Strategies
Authors: H. N. Mischel, W. Mischel. First published: 1983