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Executive Functioning and Self-Control

Self-control is the ability to delay gratification. This is important in the development of executive functioning skills for many students. The ability to inhibit behavior, i.e. wait a minute, means the student can use that break to stop and think.

Example: Shoving finished homework in the backpack (which gratifies the student because he is DONE), versus taking an extra minute and putting it in the homework section of your notebook so it gets turned in. The reward of having turned in homework is delayed gratification.

A Scientific American article by Dan Ariely  cites both a new study at Duke and the famous marshmallow study by Mischel. Though years have gone by between the studies they both demonstrate that self-control affects cognition and social outcomes in adolescents and adults. View the YouTube video of a remake of the study.

Ariely asks a great question: Where does the skill of self-control come from? Is this an issue of nature (what you are born with) or nurture (what you have been taught)? It appears that self-control is an issue of nurture, children who were able to wait developed a strategy to help them avoid temptation. Ariely points out that when you watch the children in the marshmallow study you will see that they all struggle with the impulse to eat the marshmallow now rather than wait to get another one later. However, the children that do succeed find strategies to help them; they sit on their hands, sing songs, and look around.

Moreover, Mischel found that children were better at delaying rewards when distracting thoughts were suggested to them.

Ariely uses the metaphor of the tale of Ulysses and the sirens to demonstrate the use of a strategy to help resist temptation. Ulysses knew that the sirens’ enchanting song could lead him to follow them, but he didn’t want to do that.  At the same time he also did not want to deprive himself from hearing their song – so he asked his sailors to tie him to the mast and fill their ears with wax to block out the sound – and so he could hear the song of the sirens but resist their lure. Was Ulysses able to resist temptation? No, but he was able to come up with a strategy that prevented him from acting on his impulses.

What this story and the marshmallow study tell us is that the ability to exert self-control is less connected to a natural ability and more linked to the ability to reconfigure our environment (tying ourselves to the mast) and temper the intensity by which it tempts us (filling our ears with wax).

This is good news. We can teach children strategies to help them overcome temptation once we are able to identify the situations that tempt them.

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