Self-Control the Secret to Success: Study

Those who can hold out get the biggest rewards in life, report shows

By Caitlin Millat
|  Sunday, May 10, 2009  |  Updated 4:45 PM EDT
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Self-Control the Secret to Success: Study

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Easy kiddo... children who can say no to treats stand a better chance of success later in life, a new study shows.

Next time you're jonesing for second helpings, hold out -- it could make your life a little better.

People who can exercise self-control as children are more likely to end up as successful adults, according to a study reported by The New Yorker that tracked a group of some 650 children over 30-plus years.

The Stanford University study initially asked a group of nursery school kids to resist a either a toy, a cookie or a marshmallow for fifteen minutes while the moderator stepped out of the room  -- and if they could hold out, the kids were given double the reward when time was called.

About 70 percent of the children children caved to the pressure, noshing on a treat or playing with the toys, while the rest sat calmly and waited for time to end.

Kids who held out ended up with better lives in the long run, scientists found when they revisited the subjects later in life: they had higher test scores, better-paying jobs and were more physically healthy and active, the study showed.

The study illustrated how more patient children can deal with what study designer Walter Mischel called "hot emotions" -- palpable feelings of temptation that could lead to immediate and satisfying gratification.

“If you can deal with hot emotions, then you can study for the S.A.T. instead of watching television,” said Mischel, a former Stanford psychology professor who now works at Columbia University.

“And you can save more money for retirement. It’s not just about marshmallows," he told the New Yorker.

University of Michigan researcher John Jonides, who assisted Mischel in re-testing the original study subjects, said the ability to natural instincts to "reach for the marshmallow" is what differentiates high achievers from mediocrely successful people.

“These are powerful instincts telling us to reach for the marshmallow,” Jonides said. “The only way to defeat them is to avoid them, and that means paying attention to something else."

Mischel and his team, including Jonides, are currently reseraching how to teach children early in life how to make conscious decisions that could bring them long-term rewards rather than instantaneous benefits.

“We should give marshmallows to every kindergartner,” Mischel said.

“We should say, ‘You see this marshmallow? You don’t have to eat it. You can wait. Here’s how.'"

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