Self-control isn’t the same as attention, although the two are interrelated. Attention is our capacity for vigilance, to stay focused on one particular thing. Self-control is our ability to stick to our plans and not be derailed by our impulses. Attention is needed for self-control: You have to be aware of something to control it. But self-control is useful in steering our attention on to one thing and away from another. The two go hand in hand.
Some psychologists here in Australia demonstrated this interconnection in a series of very cool studies in which participants went through one of three programs to build their self-control (1). Individuals in the first study were tasked with setting the goal of becoming fit: joining a gym, constructing a plan for getting in shape, and sticking to it. In a second study, each participant had to devise and carry out a study plan. The third study had people set a goal to save money, which involved establishing and adhering to a budget. The ostensible object of these studies was to assess participants’ success at meeting their assigned goals, but actually they were about assessing the workings of self-control.
Every couple of weeks, the participants came to the lab and took an attention test. In the test, they were shown a computer screen displaying a series of squares with one square of a particular color. When the squares jumbled around on-screen into a different order, the participants had to pay attention to that square as it moved and say where it ended up.
Now, here’s the twist. In the middle of the attention test, the researchers started playing an Eddie Murphy comedy movie on another screen. This was a test of self-control. Would the participants follow their impulse to watch Eddie Murphy and have a laugh? The moment they lost self-control, their attention would wander and they’d lose track of where the square went. The researchers found that, over time, participants in the three programs became more fit, adhered to the study program, or saved money, and they also got much better at not looking at Eddie Murphy and just paying attention to the square. In other words, their self-control improved, and so did their attention.
These researchers showed us that we can build self-control and attention by setting goals and sticking to them. They also showed that self-control and attention are mutually reinforcing. As you build one, you build the other. On the flip side, as you deplete one, you deplete the other.
Marketers know this relationship well: People are much more likely to engage in impulse spending when their attention is distracted (2). That’s why in many stores there’s loud music, bright lights, screens with moving images, colorful displays, announcements, events, salespeople offering samples and special promotions, and so on. You may go in looking for one item and come out with that item plus a few more you didn’t set out to buy.
We start to develop self-control even as infants (3). By around eighteen months, babies start to be more cooperative when limits are set: They don’t touch the trinket, even though they want to, if they are told “no” (some of the time, anyway). This shows the beginnings of impulse control and the ability to regulate desires/temptations. With toddlers, you start to see that they can resist the impulse to run across the road, begin to share their toys, and do a better job of waiting until everyone’s seated before they start eating or ripping open their birthday gifts. Here again, self-control is spotty, but you can see it developing. Between four and six years of age, roughly a third of children show the capacity for delayed gratification. They will use their self-control to forsake a treat now in order to get a bigger treat later on (4). For most kids, self-control comes online in a more stable way between the ages of seven and nine. Somewhere between nine and twelve, there’s another small developmental spurt in our self-control capacity (5).
Then in the teenage years, we backslide as the impulse and desire centers in the limbic system have a growth surge, temporarily outstripping the prefrontal cortex (6). That accounts for the impulsivity and risk-taking behavior associated with teenagers. Here again, there may be evolutionary good reasons: We didn’t live much longer than our teens in primeval times, and we likely needed what today we would consider foolhardy levels of courage to face off with predators, hunt down beasts for sustenance, head into uncharted territory for new food sources, and compete for the best mate in the tribe. Sow your wild oats, our ancient genes urge us. You might die tomorrow. Actually, you probably will. PS: So, have the waffles.
With such complexity wired deeply into us, rather than getting down on ourselves for our lack of self-control, I believe we should feel reassured to know that we have all of these internal regulating processes available to help us find our equilibrium as human beings and as parents. As we mature, then, self-control happens on two levels:
1. Impulse control in the moment. Examples: working on taxes despite wanting to watch TV, or your child practicing piano even though he’d love to have computer time instead.
2. Longer-term self-control. This entails the ability to both see and set patterns of attention over time. Examples: Noticing that you’re procrastinating on your taxes (seeing a pattern of inattention) and making a plan to work on them for a half hour every night before the deadline (setting a pattern), or noticing that your child isn’t getting around to practicing piano because he’s getting sucked into computer games (seeing a pattern of impulsivity) and making a plan with your child that he’ll practice the piano for a half hour (setting a pattern) followed by a half hour of computer games.
Our kids are learning how to operate on both levels as their brain develops. It’s intense and important. Self-control helps with many significant outcomes in a child’s life. In research with middle school and university students, self-control is more important than IQ in predicting grade point average (7). It builds confidence and caring behavior and reduces depression and risky behavior (8).
Research shows that children with high self-control grow into adults with greater physical and mental health, greater education attainment, fewer substance-abuse problems, fewer criminal convictions, better savings behavior, and greater financial security (9).
For all of these reasons, a big part of our role as parents and CEOs of our children’s lives is to help them learn how to be aware of their impulses, access their pause-and-plan mode, and set up productive ways to manage their impulses, until they can internalize and perform these processes on their own.
Strength-based parenting primes your child to exercise self-control. Each time your child overcomes the urge to meet a short-term impulse and invests that energy into growing strengths instead (e.g., going to swimming practice instead of sleeping in), she’s inching closer to realizing her full potential. Each time she remembers to draw on her patience and helpfulness in a team assignment at school even though the kids are being snarky, she’s using her self-control to build positive personality traits. The impact of each small triumph of self-control compounds over time to take a child’s strengths from the level of potential to forming the foundation of significant achievement.
Reprinted from The Strength Switch: How The New Science of Strength-Based Parenting Can Help Your Child and Your Teen to Flourish by arrangement with Avery, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2017, Lea Waters, Ph.D.
1. programs to build . . . self-control: M. Oaten and K. Cheng. 2006. “Improved self-control: The benefits of a regular program of academic study,” Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 28 (1): 1–16; M. Oaten and K. Cheng. 2006), “Longitudinal gains in self-regulation from regular physical exercise,” British Journal of Health Psychology 11 (4): 717–733; M. Oaten and K. Cheng. “Improvements in self-control from financial monitoring,” Journal of Economic Psychology 28, no 4 (2007): 487–501.
2. impulse spending when . . . attention is distracted: B. Shiv, A. Fedorikhin, and S. M. Nowlis. “Interplay of the heart and mind in decision making,” in Inside Consumption: Frontiers of Research on Consumer Motives, Goals, and Desire, S. Ratneshwar, and D. Mick, eds. Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2005.
3. We start to develop self-control even as infants: B. E. Vaughn, C. B. Kopp, and J. B. Krakow. 1984. “The emergence and consolidation of self-control from eighteen to thirty months of age: Normative trends and individual differences,” Child Development 55 (3): 990–1004.
4. delayed gratification: W. Mischel, E. B. Ebbesen, and A. Raskoff Zeiss. 1972. “Cognitive and attentional mechanisms in delay of gratification,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 21 (2): 204–218.
5. developmental spurt in our self-control capacity: C. Hay and W. Forrest. “The development of self-control: Examining self-control theory’s stability thesis,” Criminology 44, no 4 (2006): 739–774.
6. the teenage years: J. N. Giedd. 2008. “The teen brain: Insights from neuroimaging.”
7. self-control is more important than IQ: For university students, see J. P. Tangney, R. F. Baumeister, and A. L. Boone. 2004. “High self‐control predicts good adjustment, less pathology, better grades, and interpersonal success,” Journal of Personality 72 (2): 271–324; for middle-school students, see A. L. Duckman and M. E. P. Seligman. 2006. “Self-discipline gives girls the edge: Gender in self-discipline, grades, and achievement test scores,” Journal of Educational Psychology 98 (2): 198–208.
8. It builds confidence and caring behavior and reduces depression and risky behavior: S. Gestsdóttir and R. M. Lerner. 2007. “Intentional self-regulation and positive youth development in early adolescence: Findings from the 4-H study of positive youth development,” Developmental Psychology 43 (2): 508–521; A. L. Duckworth, T. S. Gendler, and J. J. Gross. 2014. “Self-control in school-age children,” Educational Psychologist 49 (3): 199–217; B. M. Galla and A. L. Duckworth. 2015. “More than resisting temptation: Beneficial habits mediate the relationship between self-control and positive life outcomes,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 109 (3): 508–525.