Self-control predicts academic and professional success better than intelligence

This is not my opinion – it’s the result of 40 years of psychological research that is detailed, in depth by May’s New Yorker magazine. Although I pretty much knew that instinctively since I know lots of smart people who just cannot seem to connect all the dots.

Angela Lee Duckworth, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania...found that the ability to delay gratification was a far better predictor of academic performance than I.Q. She gave eighth graders a choice between a dollar right away or two dollars the following week and tracked the results over years.

In a 40-year study of over 600 4 year olds, Walter Mischel, Stanford professor of psychology, correlated  that SAT, academic and professional success all were significantly higher among children who could delay eating a marshmallow for 15 minutes while unsupervised in a room. The children were presented an option to eat one marshmallow immediately or waiting until the adult returned with a second marshmallow for the child to eat both. The child had a bell to call the researcher back early if the child couldn’t wait any longer – but that only resulted in one marshmallow to eat.

Some children are able to delay gratification naturally and some children will always be better at it than others. But the researchers have shown that practice – at home and at school, develops the mind’s abilities to weigh immediate gratification with a better outcome. The ability to delay gratification is a demonstration of a larger skill – Metarecognition. Metarecognition is the ability to think through your options and determine what course of actions will lead to the best outcome – even if that means delaying gratification along the way.

This is one of the easiest advantages we can give our children. Mischel is particularly excited by the example of the substantial subset of people who failed the marshmallow task as four-year-olds but ended up becoming high-delaying adults.

What can we do as practical parents to give our children the best foundation in “metarecognition” or delayed gratification?


  • When my children ask for a new toy, I make them make a list for their birthdays or Chanukah.

  • My husband enforces daily piano practice for our eldest. I really should too.

  • Reading is required daily but we moved to longer books to delay the success of completion.

  • We wait to eat on Friday nights until all Shabbat prayers are said –while inhaling the nectar of just baked challah.

  • On Halloween, we let the kids pick two treats to eat that evening and they save the rest for the rest of the year (we end up bringing 50% of it to work).

The researchers taught children a simple set of mental tricks—such as pretending that the candy is only a picture, surrounded by an imaginary frame—that dramatically improved their self-control. I’m going to work on this with my kids because the better they get at self-control, the more likely they are to make better (and safer) choices in life. I’ve always valued that and now I have science to back up my instincts. What ideas do you have to teach children to delay gratification?