Mischel and his colleagues also have conducted extensive research on self-control. Their work has been summarized in an article published in 1989 in the journal Science. In several experiments, the researchers attempted to clarify why some people are capable of self-regulation, at least in some areas of their lives, while others fail in such attempts. They found enduring differences in self-control as early as the preschool years. In one study, for example, they showed young children pairs of treats, one less and one more desir able (for example, two versus five cookies or one versus two marshmallows). The children were told that the experimenter would leave the room and that they could obtain the more valuable treat if they waited until he or she returned. They could also ring the bell to bring the experimenter back sooner, but then they would receive the lesser treat. During the waiting period, which lasted a maximum of fifteen minutes, the children were unobtrusively observed. Later, the children's strategies to bridge the waiting period were analyzed. It became apparent that self-control increased when the children used behavioral or cognitive strategies to bridge the delay, such as avoiding looking at the rewards, distracting themselves with singing, playing with their fingers, or cognitively transforming the rewards (for example, thinking of marshmallows as clouds). Interestingly, a follow-up study more than ten years later revealed that those preschool children who had displayed more self-control early were socially and academically more competent, more attentive, more verbal, and better able than their peers to cope with stress as adolescents. In a related study, the length of delay time in preschool proved to be correlated with the adolescents' Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores, suggesting that greater self-control is related to superior academic achievement.
These studies provide an excellent illustration of how cognitive person variables sometimes can have very stable and generalized effects on behavior. The early acquisition of effective cognitive and behavioral strategies to delay gratification had a positive influence on the children's long-term adjustment. Thus, self-control fulfills the requirements of a "personality disposition" in Mischel's sense, because it constitutes an important mediating mechanism for adaptive social behavior throughout the life cycle.
Although the examples presented above lend support to Mischel's theory, one might argue that children's behavior under the constraints of a research setting is artificial and may not reflect what they normally do in their natural environment. While this argument is plausible, it was not supported in a later study with six- to twelve-year-old children in a summer residential treatment facility. Observing children under naturalistic circumstances in this facility led to comparable results. Children who spontaneously used effective cognitive-attentional strategies for self-regulation showed greater self-control in delay situations and were better adjusted than their peers.
An unanswered question is how best to teach children effective information-processing skills. If these skills acquire dispositional character and influence overall adjustment, their attainment would indeed be of vital importance to healthy development.
Was this article helpful?