Learning Lab

Self-Control is Quite Useful

I was proof reading a document recently and part way through I had a “stuff this!” moment and gave up. I then sent the document back saying it was proofed. I was tired and every time I read a sentence I lost track and had to go back to the beginning. Instead of persevering, I gave up. Bad Dr P! This is an example of a lack of self-control. The right thing to do would have been to focus (via a coffee?) and to force myself to complete the job properly. But the easier and more tempting solution was to just give up and do something easier instead.

There are many terms that are used to describe self-control (Will-power, inhibitory control, self-regulation, self-discipline, ego strength, executive control) and they probably have subtly different definitions or uses. But what they all try to capture is a fundamental control process of the brain: you have a predisposed or default tendency to carry out a certain behaviour, but you are able to prevent that behaviour from happening and instead do something else in a more controlled manner. Essentially you are preventing an automatic response with a controlled one – often the automatic response might have good short term consequences, but bad long term consequences. Smoking is an obvious example – feels good now, but will kill you later. Another example would be shouting at your colleagues (might make you feel better in the moment, but probably won’t help long-term team cohesion, or your job prospects). In my example at the start, the default tendency was to give up (easier to give up, harder to persevere), whilst the controlled response should have been to keep trying – in the knowledge of a job well done and for the later benefits of having done it well.

The concept of control and conflict has been around for as long as psychology has been studied. Famously, Sigmund Freud talked about the “Id” (full of desires and impulses) being reigned in by the “Ego” (the management system). In his scheme, the “Superego” provided a moral compass to guide the ‘right’ behaviour. He got it pretty much right. We all have a sense of how we should make decisions and behave but sometimes we find ourselves losing control and then regretting it later.

And here’s an astounding fact about self-control: childhood self-control predicts adult success (Shoda et al., 1990). In a now famous study, pre-schoolers were left in a room with a single marshmallow and told that if they didn’t eat it for 15 mins they would be given a second one (see the links, including a video, below). Those children that were able to delay gratification (high self-control) at the age of 4, showed greater achievements and abilities in later adulthood. In fact, self-control is better than IQ at predicting future success (Duckworth and Seligman, 2005). Interestingly, certain areas of the brain distinguish good vs poor self-control individuals. The prefrontal cortex is more active for high self-control whilst the ventral striatum is more active for low self-control (Casey et al., 2011). As I mentioned above, we often think of self-control as being a conflict between instant temptations and healthier long-term goals. The prefrontal cortex appears to play a major role in cognitive reasoning and planning – highly active in people with good self-control. In contrast, the ventral striatum is part of the brain’s reward system and its over-activity is implicated in addiction. High striatal activity was seen in those with low self-control. Two brain systems competing to control your behaviour!

In an exciting twist to this story, John Jonnides has shown that you can train self-control – you can become better at it through practice (Jaeggi et al., 2011). By using a working memory ‘game’ you can improve the cognitive control abilities of your prefrontal cortex and in so doing enhance your ability to suppress or dampen-down your temptations. In fact, a version of the task they used in their research is available as an App! (For example, search “n-back suite” on the iTunes app store.) This is real brain training – unlike the untested and unproven commercial rubbish that is often pedalled.

So what have we learnt? That we are often tempted to take the easy route and that it can be difficult, effortful and trying to persevere and take the longer-term route. This is natural and probably reflects a conflict between the reward system in the brain and the cognitive control system. Importantly, the ability to self-control predicts future success (including long term well-being). And it can be learnt. But you have to keep working at it. Aim for small wins over time.

What is the most important message here? For me, it is the fact that self-control can be learnt and developed. Every time you are successful at controlling an impulse then you become stronger for the next time. And as you become better at self-control, then you are developing a better future for yourself and those around you.

– Dr John –


Casey, B. J.; L. H. Somerville, I. H. Gotlib, O. Ayduk, N. T. Franklin, M. K. Askren, J. Jonides, M. G. Berman, N. L. Wilson, T. Teslovich, G. Glover, V. Zayas, W. Mischel, Y. Shoda (2011). Behavioral and neural correlates of delay of gratification 40 years later. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108 (36): 14998–15003 (and reported in the press: “Marshmallow Test Points to Biological Basis for Delayed Gratification”. Science Daily. September 1, 2011)

Duckworth AL, and Seligman MEP (2005) Self-Discipline Outdoes IQ in Predicting Academic Performance of Adolescents. Psychological Science December 2005 vol. 16 no. 12 939-944.

Jaeggi SM, Buschkuehl M, Jonides J, and Shah P (2011) Short- and long-term benefits of cognitive training. PNAS vol. 108 no. 25 10081-10086.

Shoda, Yuichi; Mischel, Walter; Peake, Philip K. (1990). Predicting Adolescent Cognitive and Self-Regulatory Competencies from Preschool Delay of Gratification: Identifying Diagnostic Conditions. Developmental Psychology 26 (6) 978–986.

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