Wednesday, July 8, 2009


An article triggered my attention in The New Yorker since I find the topic fascinating: self-control. I feel like Amercians definitely lack self-control. Especially with this newer, younger generation, everything is instantaneous. Information, food, and access can come at a moment's notice. No longer do we need to wait for many things, and if we do, there are lots of complaints. So, I think it's interesting to take a little time to ponder the idea of self-control.

Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me, might have a field day with this article since her book focuses on this newer, younger generation that receives quick results. We can text on our cell phones for quick answers we don't need, let alone those with Blackberries or iPhones who have much more control and access. If we want quick food, there is always fast food. If we want a plane ticket or a concert ticket, we log on to the computer to get it fast. We live in a fast world; we demand fast results.

That is why I think this article is so interesting: the research started in this article began before this so-called "Generation Me," before the technology we have today which eliminates much self-control.

The article by Jonah Lehrer is called "Don't!" which is pretty appropriate. The article begins with a study completed in the 1960s at Stanford University. Obviously, the study was conducted to test self-control of children and then follow them through their lives to see if this help/hurt them. The initial test placed each child in a room with an adult. The adult let the child choose between two treats, a marshmallow or an Oreo. The adult told the children that he was going to leave the room with the treat sitting on the desk. If the child waited until he returned, the child could receive TWO treats in return for the one treat. If the treat was gone when he returned, they would receive no additional treat. If they needed him to return in order to eat the treat, they had to ring a bell.

Most children struggled and simply ate the treat after the man left the room. Only 30% of the children could delay their gratification. Video footage shows children struggling, pulling at their hair, covering their eyes with their hands, kicking the desk, playing with the treat, etc. Many try to delay gratification, but they simply cannot follow through. Many didn't even bother to ring the bell before they indulged in their treat. If they're going to break the rules, why alert someone anyway? (I find it amusing)

The man only left the room for three minutes! I think it's sad that we need to be satisfied IMMEDIATELY and we can't wait any longer. What is that saying about us as a culture? It might be different if we were starving or living in horrific conditions, but most of us are not, especially those tested on the grounds of a major university. Yikes.

Some conclusions and results from the study:

"The initial goal of the expirement was to identify mental processes that allowed some people to delay gratification while others simply surrendered."

"The low delayers, the children who rang the bell quickly, seemed more likely to have behavioral problems, both at school and at home. They got lower SAT scores. They struggled in stressful situations, often had trouble paying attention, and found it difficult to maintain friendships."

"The child who could wait fifteen minutes had an SAT score that was, on average, two hundred and ten points higher than that of the kid who could wait only thirty seconds."

"Lower delaying adults have a significantly higher body-mass index and are more likely to have had problems with drugs."

Walter Mischel is the brains behind this study. Even before he was doing this study, he went to Trinidad in 1955 to complete a very similar study where he gave the children one day to hold onto a chocolate bar, and when he saw them the second day with the same bar, they would receive another bar. He tried to develop differences between races, but his results were inconclusive.

However, Mischel has a very interesting metaphor that I would like to share, kind of backing up and explaining his self-control research, in which he calls it interactionism:

"[Interactionism] concerns a car making a screeching noise. How does a mechanic solve the problem? He begins trying to identify certain conditions that trigger the noise. Is there a screech when the car is accelerating, or when it's shifting gears, or turning at low speeds? Unless the mechanic can give the screech a context, he'll never find the broken part."

In the same respect, Mischel is trying to get psychiartists to think like mechanics here. As he is trying to identify what makes people not have any sense of self-control, he needs to find what is "broken" in order to fix it. I think it's a very interesting metaphor that makes a lot of sense.

Techniques that Mischel found worked for maintaining self-control: learning metacognition (thinking about thinking), distracting the mind, practicing delay, pretending, establishing routines.

However, in terms of nature versus nurture, Mischel found that they are interrelated in terms of self-control. It can be a genetic factor, but nurture also comes into play. When Mischel gave a "delay-of-gratification tasks to five low-income families in the Bronx, he noticed that their ability to delay was below average, at least compared with that of children in Palo Alto. When you grow up poor, you might not practice delay as much."

The overall point and conclusion that Mischel leaves us with: "We're teaching ourselves how to think so that we can outsmart our desires."

Self-control is a fickle beast that I see way too much of in my life, especially when dealing with young adults. Students want the answers NOW--they have trouble when you ask them to complete an assignment that takes time. They want the words to be bolded in the textbook, they want to be given the answer, and they don't want to have to search too long to find it. It's becoming a difficult problem to tackle, especially in Enlgish, what I teach, when so much of their writing comes from their own opinions, judgments, and observations about literature and their worlds. It can be frustrating, but maybe they just need a little training and practice, as Mischel would suggest.

Self-control is harder than it seems, but in a country where the obesity rate and drug and alcohol abuse rate is rising, it's a hard battle to ignore. I think it's a very important skill to teach; many overlook it. Perhaps if there is more focus on it, we can see more positive results in other areas. It's definitely worth looking into.

So, what do you think of self-control or the article and findings from "Don't!"?

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