Posts tagged self-control

Research Summaries: Can Adolescents Learn Self-control? Delay of Gratification in the Development of Control over Risk Taking


Today’s research summary is based on a paper by Angela Duckworth and colleagues, and examines the nature of self-control as assessed by risk-taking, sensation-seeking, future time perspective and delay of gratification in US adolescents.

  1. Adolescents are known to indulge in risk taking activities like recreational drug use and various theories abound as to why adolescence is a particularly sensitive time.
  2. As per one theory, there is a dopamine surge in reward centers of the brain during adolescence which leads to impulsive sensation seeking behavior. Traditionally, it is believed that the prefrontal cortex , which can override such impulsive behavior, does not mature in teenage and continues to mature till late thirties, and thus unable to self-regulate behavior in the teenage adequately.
  3. The above view posits that there is not much one can do about impulsive and risk taking behavior as the brain will take its own sweet time to mature; another view suggests that there are two independent processes involved in risk taking behavior- an underlying propensity to indulge in impulsive sensation seeking behavior (which can be considered as the accelerator moving one towards risk taking behavior)  and an ability to delay gratification in service of long term goals (which can be considered as the brakes which moves one away from risk taking behaviors).
  4. Literature review suggests that sensation seeking is uncorrelated with delay of gratification and both may independently impact risk taking behavior. It was unclear from prior research if delay of gratification can be an effective brake even in adolescents who were very high on sensation seeking. Also future time perspective, or the tendency to think about future more than present, is related to reduced risk taking, but the effect may be mediated by ability to delay gratification (because that ability directly depends on an ability to visualize the future) .
  5. 900 US adolescents were administered a delay discounting task (choice between larger reward later and a smaller reward now)  to ascertain their ability to delay gratification. Their sensation seeking and future time perspective was measured using self-report measures.  Risk taking was again measured using self report about three risky behaviors viz cigarette smoking, marijuana use, and binge drinking.Structural equation modeling was used to determine the relation between all variables.
  6. As expected, sensation seeking in teens and delay of gratification were uncorrelated; delay of gratification predicted less risk taking behavior, future time perspective also predicted less risk taking behavior , but not over and beyond its impact on delay of gratification.  Sensation seeking peaked around age 18 and then started decreasing;  future time perspective kept increasing with age; and temporal discounting showed an upward trend with age.
  7. For teens that were high in sensation seeking, their temporal discounting increased with age more sharply.  The authors explained this due to the fact that teens who were high in sensation seeking would indulge in more risky behavior and on getting negative feedback from environment on these behaviors will learn to self-regulate and increase delay of gratification.
  8. From this research it seems there are at least two routes to increase your temporal discounting muscle and hence reduce your risk taking behavior. The first approach is to become explicitly future focused and have a stronger future time perspective; the second approach is to explore, experiment and learn from your mistakes as your risk taking backfires. If done in a conducive environment, like graded driving tests, then this can lead to good outcomes.

I found the paper pretty interesting as it clearly dissociates the tow mechanisms that lead to risky behavior. If you found the above interesting, check out the paper here.

Research Summaries: Self-controlled children stay leaner in the transition to adolescence

This research summary is similar to the earlier one where self-control predicted overweight status; Angela and team have co-authored a similar paper, though based on a different data set and controlling for more confounds.

Picture of an Obese Teenager (146kg/322lb) wit...

Picture of an Obese Teenager (146kg/322lb) with Central Obesity, side view.Self Made Picture of an Obese Teenager (Myself) (146kg/322lb) with Central Obesity, Front View. Feel Free to use. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  1. Self-control is a variable of concern as ” In this obesogenic context, self control, the capacity to regulate behavior, attention, and emotion in the service of personal standards and goals, is required to forego immediate gratification and choose instead options that protect against weight gain.”
  2. Weight control may be important for teens, not only for its long term health associations, but also because of its impact on physical attractiveness.
  3.  This study was a prospective longitudinal study that looked at over 100 children in a school setting, and measured their self control and BMI while in grade 5 (mean age 10.5) and correlated it with their BMI when in grade 8.
  4. Self-control was measured using a variety of methods. Students filled 2 self-report measures of self-control: The Impulsivity subscale of the Eysenck I6 Junior Questionnaire and The Brief Self-Control Scale. Parents as well as teachers also filled the informant version of Brief self-control scale. Apart from this Kirby Delay-Discounting Rate Monetary Choice Questionnaire was used to present hypothetical choices between small reward now and large reward later, meant to judge the delay of gratification. Also an actual behavioral delay of gratification task was used to ascertain self-control. A composite measure was created from these measures.
  5. Potential confounds like demographics (SES), Happiness (measured by SSLS and PANAS-C) and Intelligence (Otis- Lennon School Ability Test—Seventh Edition Level F) were measured and controlled for in the analysis.
  6. The authors replicated their earlier result that low self-control in childhood, indeed leads to weight gain in transition to adolescence. High self-control, on the other hand, protects children form weight gain.

Overall, this is a nice addition and replication of the earlier paper that we have already summarized. If you want to check out the paper its available online here.

Research Summaries: Self-Control Protects Against Overweight Status in the Transition from Childhood to Adolescence

Grit and self-control are the two character strengths on which Angela Duckworth focuses a lot, and this research summary is about a paper co-authored by Angela that shows how a lack of self-control can lead to obesity and weight gain in adolescence; while being more self-controlled helps one stay leaner.

Body mass index. Graphics is made language ind...

Body mass index. Graphics is made language independent. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  1. The authors define self-control as ” the ability to override impulses in order to achieve goals and maintain standards”.  It is also the ability to resist short term temptations and distractions in service of long term benefits.
  2. Self-Control has many positive associations like increased life expectancy, higher report card grades and achievement test scores and career success. However not many have looked at whether and how self-control may be related to the right amount of body weight.
  3. Weight gain from childhood to adolescence is natural, but excessive weight gain that leads to high BMI (body mass Index) is problematic and associated with negative outcomes like coronary diseases, diabetes etc. some risk/ protective factors like Socio economic status (SES) and pubertal development are well established; however not much work has been done linking personality variables like self-control with excessive weight gain.
  4. As children enter adolescence they start exercising more and more autonomy regarding their lifestyle choices like when to eat , sleep etc. Self-control, or the ability to delay short term gratification in view of long term well-being, thus becomes a salient feature for them with regards to how they manage their weight.
  5. This study was a prospective longitudinal study that looked at nearly 850 children in a birth cohort, and measured their self control at age 9 and correlated it with their BMI at age 15.
  6. Self-control at age 9 was operationalised using informant ratings by mother, father and teacher on the items related to self-control on the  Social Skills Rating System (SSRS)questionnaire.  Overweight status was established by classifying those with BMI z-scores falling above 85th percentile as overweight.
  7. Other potential confounds like intelligence, pubertal status etc were also measured and used in the analysis.
  8. The results showed that the overweight children (at age 15) were half a standard deviation lower on self-control (at age 9) that the normal weight children. Similarly, those children who showed higher self control than average at age 9, were less likely to become overweight at age 15.
  9. The study is important because it points to one mutable, and under one’s control, factor that leads to excessive weight gain – Self control. Thus, this factor , self-control, can and should be taught during the childhood to adolescence transition.  It will not only help the obesity epidemic but will lead to other gains too!

If you want to dig deeper, here is the original article.

Research Summaries: Self-Discipline Gives Girls the Edge: Gender in Self-Discipline, Grades, and Achievement Test Scores

Today’s post summarizes a paper by Angela Duckworth and Martin Seligman, that parses the same set of data, as obtained in their earlier paper (see research summary of that paper here), to come up with new insights about gender differences in self-control and scholastic achievement.


Dangal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


  1. Girls, typically outperform boys when it comes to getting good grades overall and within each subject. this is true of US; however from what I have seen of Indian board results, the same is true of almost every board exam in India, be it CBSE, ICSE or State Boards.
  2. The girls however do not outperform boys on achievement tests like SAT or on ability test like IQ tests.
  3. If one were to assume that achievement and ability test are a better measure and can be used for predicting the grades, then girls grades as predicted by IQ etc fall shorter of what they actually achieve; and boys typically achieve lower actual grades that those predicted on the basis of their IQ. This phenomena is called underprediction and overprediction respectively.
  4. Traditional accounts of explaining this gender gap focus on how boys are better at achievement tests and are at an advantage. For example, as boys are expected to do better on such tests, girls face ‘stereotype threat’ which leads to poor performance by girls.
  5. Angela set out to find whether the undeprediction of grades for girls, and the advantage that girls have over boys when it comes to grades, might be due to gender differences in self-control. Specifically she surmised that girls are more self-controlled than boys and this factor could partially explain the female advantage when it comes to grades.
  6. I had lamented in my earlier research summary, that Anglea hadn’t defined self-control; she does in this paper:
  7. We use the terms self-discipline and self-control interchangeably, defining both as the ability to suppress prepotent responses in the service of a higher goal and further specifying that such a choice is not automatic but rather requires conscious effort. Examples of self-discipline include deliberately modulating one’s anger rather than having a temper tantrum, reading test instructions before proceeding to the questions, paying attention to a teacher rather than daydreaming, saving money so that it can accumulate interest in the bank, choosing homework over TV, and persisting on long-term assignments despite boredom and frustration.

  8. Parsing the data from previous study they found that indeed VIII class girls outperformed boys when it came to grades achieved; that their grades were underpredicted if one looked at achievement test results; girls were more self-controlled than boys and that gender differences in self-control partially mediated the relationship between gender and grades. In study 2, they had administered an IQ test also, and that too underpredicted girls’ grades.
  9. To me, if we put the two papers together, one showing that self-control trumps IQ, and the second showing that girls have an advantage in grades due to self-control over boys, and we club this with the fact that in some IQ tests etc boys show a greater variance than girls on IQ, I think a safe bet for boys, is not to rely too much on IQ, but develop self-control too.  Both intelligence and self-control are immensely malleable, and depending on the type of test / grade that my be more meaningful criteria of academic achievement for you, you should develop either or both- but most important do not compromise on your love of learning, curiosity and creativity while being lured by these indices of scholastic achievement- these are way too important in their own way and without being a means to an end.


Research Summaries: Self-Discipline Outdoes IQ in Predicting Academic Performance of Adolescents

Today’s research summary focuses on a very early article by Angela Duckworth, that first catapulted her to fame. Co-authored with Martin Seligmen, the article focuses on how non-cognitive factors like self-control are a better predictor of scholastic achievement than say cognitive factors like IQ.

Two college students wrestling (collegiate, sc...

Two college students wrestling (collegiate, scholastic, or folkstyle) in the United States. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  1. Authors use the awkward term self-discipline in the paper, but all they really meant was self-control, defining which, and around which, a rich literature already existed. Angela clarifies as much in her new MOOC on Coursera, so don’t start wondering what this new concept means in psychological literature.
  2. Self-control (which the authors surprisingly didn’t define), as per VIA, is the ability to be disciplined and to regulate what one feels and does; it involves both feelings and actions; it is the ability to delay present gratification for future benefits, and it also about not getting distracted by temptations and able to focus on the task at hand. It is the opposite of being impulsive.
  3. The present studies (two of them) focused on class VIII students and were partly driven by Angela’s observation as a math teacher that hard working students who could control their impulses, sometimes fared better than those who could grasp concepts easily. That drove part of the hypothesis.
  4. Earlier works has shown that Self-control, as measured by Marshmallow test, in 4 year olds, can predict positive life outcomes decades later; similarly, in college students out of 32 measured personality traits (like extraversion, energy levels etc), only self-control predicted later CGPA more robustly than earlier SAT scores. Thus, it was reasonable to hypothesize that self-control in eighth graders will predict academic achievement better than IQ.
  5. Self-control is a difficult thing to measure accurately. Thus, they used self-reports, teacher reports, parent reports as well as a test that gave students hypothetical choices between a small reward now or a big reward later. Angela actually wanted to do an age appropriate  test similar to marshmallow test with the eighth graders, but Marty was skeptical; in the second study they did include a behavioral measure of delay of gratification task, whereby they actually handed out 1$ envelope to students with a choice of  keeping that or returning it now to get 2$ next week.
  6. Academic achievement was measured by grades achieved at end term, attendance, selection into a high school program, and achievement test scores.
  7. IQ was measured using a standard IQ test; keep in mind that IQ is a very narrow assessment for a part of broader cognitive factors/ intelligence.
  8. What they found was that self-control not only predicted academic achievement and who would improve school grades over the class term, but that it was twice an effective predictor than IQ (explained twice as much variance).
  9. This is an important paper as it makes the case for enhancing and working on the self-control of students, for better academic performance. Self-control, by all means, and like any other character strength, is malleable and can be increased by proper interventions.
  10. This paper is personally relevant to me, as last year I worked with IXth class students on their character strengths and this year I am working with VIII class students focusing on their character strengths.  Although the results, I believe, will be applicable and generalize to other age groups, its heartening to note that at least for VIII class, barring cross-cultural effects, there is proven research showing that increasing strengths like self-control pays big dividends.

if the above has you wanting to read more, go to the source- the original article can be found here.

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