Mischel (Psychology/Columbia Univ.) argues that our ability to voluntarily exercise self-restraint in pursuit of that just-got-to-have-it desire provides children with a powerful tool that can help them succeed later in life.
Numerous research studies have suggested that those who practice self-control do better on their SATs, have great reserves of self-worth, less stress, and have less incidence of obesity and addiction. These are preliminary findings, notes the author, who developed the classic “marshmallow experiment,” which illustrates ideas of self-control and delayed gratification. The preponderance of evidence has not yet come down on one side or the other, and he acknowledges the powerful drive for instant gratification—he, too, wants it now, whatever it is, not at some nebulous time in the future. Mischel also notes that people with emotional grounding, advanced social skills and off-the-charts intellectual abilities can still be crippled by self-control issues. The exact source of self-control remains a mystery: Is it a product of nature, of nurture or an acquired cognitive skill of some kind? Researchers have been able to identity two types: “Hot” self-control is “emotional, reflexive unconscious”; the “cool” variety is “cognitive, reflective, slower and effortful.” Undoubtedly, there will be nuances down the road, further complicating the picture, but for now, Mischel gets to the heart of the matter. “The emotional brain’s predisposition to overvalue immediate rewards and to greatly discount the value of delayed rewards,” writes the author, “points to what we need to do if we want to take control: we have to reverse the process by cooling the present and heating the future….push the temptation in front of you far away in space and time, and bring the distant consequences closer in your mind.”
No one will deny that self-control would make for a better planet, and this cogent guide suggests paths that may lead us to more conscious control of this desirable quality.