We’ve all heard of the famous Stanford Marshmallow Experiment – a child is presented with one marshmallow and told they can eat it straight away, but if they wait 15 minutes for the experimenter to return, they will receive a second marshmallow. The experiment was designed to test a child’s ability to practice delayed gratification, or resist the temptation for an immediate reward.
A recent and more detailed study, led by scientists in New Zealand, shows that individuals who exhibit more self-control as children have better life outcomes, living healthier and wealthier adult lives, and choosing and maintaining careers that are personally and financially more rewarding.
This is the result of one of the world’s largest longitudinal studies. Beginning in 1972, researchers assessed 1000 people born in Dunedin between 1972-1973, and followed them throughout their lives. Of the 1000 study participants, those who reported greater life satisfaction in adulthood exhibited more self-control as children.
The study looked at brain function in three-year-old children – things like fine motor skills, self-control and the ability to express and understand language. Children with poor self-control often exhibited impatience and impulsivity, avoided mental effort, had poor attention spans, and were unable to complete tasks.
Researchers linked the evaluation of brain and mental function in three-year-olds with various adult outcomes, including obesity, crime, welfare dependence and prescription medication use. They found they could easily predict which children in the study group would fall into the category of ‘economic burden’, and lack of self-control was one of the main predictors of a child becoming an economic burden in adult life.
The Dunedin study is unique because researchers used a ‘general population sample’, meaning they assessed everyone born in Dunedin in that one-year period, regardless of their social or economic status. The study also tested for many variables, so scientists could determine that self-control, irrespective of other factors such as socioeconomic status and IQ level, heavily influenced one’s success in adult life, including their career and finances.
Self-control is one of the most important skills we can possess in the workplace as it allows us to regulate our feelings and behaviours. This involves keeping emotions and impulses in check by resisting temptation, avoiding impulsivity or inappropriate behaviour, and practising patience.
Low self-control can lead to potentially damaging behaviour in business like risk-taking, cutting corners, and an inability to plan and manage time, resulting in poor performance or procrastination. Self-control in an organisational context means one can focus on their long-term goals by controlling their impulses.
But if you’re the type who can’t resist temptation, you are not fated to eat the marshmallow; self-control can be taught - it is like a muscle that needs to be used. Improving your ability to cope with stress, finding healthy ways to gratify yourself, creating a plan or schedule, good quality sleep, a healthy diet, exercise and meditation can help improve self-control. Of course, the best window of opportunity is during childhood, but even a slight improvement in self-control in adulthood can lead to better life outcomes, so we can all benefit from practising greater self-control.
Importantly, poor self-control is only problematic when it affects a whole range of life areas, and not just our ability to resist eating junk-food or metaphorical marshmallows.
The next time you find your self-control slipping, try to take a minute to pause and reflect before acting – it may lead to a more desirable outcome for everyone.