Friday, May 15, 2009

Mental Resource: Self-Control

This article relates to my post yesterday about the Aristocracy of Morality.  It discusses a famous experiment run several decades ago.  They found out what treat children liked the most, and then they put them in a room with that treat.  They told the children that, if they waited long enough without eating the treat, they would get two of them.  They measured how long the kids could last without eating the treat in front of them.  Some ate it immediately.  Most held out for a minute or two.  A few managed to wait the whole fifteen minutes and got the second treat.

Then, a couple decades later, they looked at all kinds of life outcomes for the children.  The ability to delay gratification at four years old was strongly correlated to all kinds of measures of success.  The patient children did better in school, they had fewer problems with drugs and obesity, they maintained more and better friendships, and they were generally less stressed and happier.  The kids were all part of a 'Mental Overclass' and would probably remain so for the rest of their lives, no matter what happened to them, what life path they chose, or how much money they ended up making.

Most of the trends in modern behavior research are towards Situationism: looking at how people's actions are affected by the environment rather than innate character traits.  So it is always notable when they find some innate trait with such a clear impact on behavior.  People have known for a long time that the ability to control your impulses and delay gratification is essential for a good life.  But this trait, unlike IQ, has hardly been studied by science.  We don't know how much of it is genetic, and how much if it is learned.  Either way, your parents will have a big impact on it.

My father taught me a key lesson in this when I was young.  I've mentioned it to him before, and he doesn't even remember doing it, but I do.  I used to enjoy collecting baseball cards.  I would go to the baseball card shop and buy packs of cards.  My dad told me that it would be a lot cheaper to buy a whole box of cards all at once.  But I never saved up enough money to do so.  So he bought the box of cards, and then sold me the packs at the proper fraction of the box cost, without the extra retail markup.  They ended up being a lot cheaper, and I got more cards for my money.  In this way, he demonstrated to me the value of evaluating various options, saving, and long-term planning.  From then on, I started to buy the boxes myself, and eventually applied these skills to other purchases.

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