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Long-term rewards of self-control

Sunday, February 1, 2015
Book Club

Self-control is one of the biggest challenges we face in life. Impulsivity, impatience and the ability to delay gratification prevail in most of our lives in one way or the other. Babies and young children want what they want right now and they cry or throw fits if they don’t get it. 

Teenagers want instant results with the push of a button or they rebel. Tune in; tune out. Instant gratification is the name of the game.

Psychologists say if we don’t figure out how to control our impulses, we will face many challenges in life: drug addiction, obesity, poor self esteem, failed relationships and more. Students drop out of school. Crime rises. Many of the problems we face personally or in society can be traced back to impulsivity and a lack of self-control. 

Self-control is the hot topic for our February Sunday Arts Section (SAS) Book Club choice, The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self Control by Walter Mischel. Motivated by his own problems with self-control, Mischel has spent his life studying this issue or challenge—however you want to look at it. 

Mischel conducted research in the US and right here in Trinidad. Mischel tells readers, “The ability to delay gratification for the sake of future consequences is an acquirable cognitive skill.” 

That’s certainly good news. 

In The Marshmallow Test, readers learn that research about impulsivity has been going on since the 1960s, which means researchers have a clear indication of where this struggle leads in life. 

“We have shown that this skill set is visible and measurable early in life,” says Mischel, “and has profound long-term consequences for people’s welfare, mental and physical health.”

Delaying gratification is important for both academic and child-rearing purposes. It is an acquired skill that can be enhanced through specific cognitive strategies.

In the 1960s, Mischel conducted studies with preschoolers in the Stanford University nursery school. Preschoolers could choose between having an immediate reward like a marshmallow or a reward of two marshmallows that they would have to wait up to 20 minutes to collect. Children got to choose the reward they wanted from among marshmallows, cookies, pretzels or other treats. 

Mischel documented how the children struggled to resist temptation and fought to delay gratification. He found their choices at a pre-school level affected their choices later on in life. The longer preschoolers waited for their reward, the better their SAT scores (US college entrance exams) were later in life. 

At age 27-32 those who had waited longer in that nursery school experiment, had fewer problems with their weight, and they felt more confident. They pursued their goals more effectively and coped with stress better. Their brain scans looked different in areas that had been linked to obesity and addictions. 

The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self Control is a book that teaches readers about willpower and how to control emotional responses. For those who think willpower is something you either have or don’t have, this is a book for you. The local content in this book is bound to spark interesting book club discussions.

Discussion questions

1. How does impulsivity define your life? 

2. Do you feel that you are good at managing impulsivity? If so, what strategies do you use? 

3. What impulses can you control and what impulses do you find difficult to control? 

4. Do you believe that self-control is a skill that can be learned?



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