Skip to content

Keeping your eye on the ball: a defense of self-control

18th Jun 2018

We’re all excited to watch England kick off their World Cup campaign this evening against Tunisia. Like workplaces around the country, we will be getting together with a few drinks to celebrate England’s resurgence (…or perhaps distract us from something more underwhelming).

Either way, we should all spare a thought for those sitting their A-levels and GCSEs this summer. Research shows that pupils sitting exams during the World Cup get worse grades, with the effect particularly strong for boys and disadvantaged students.

If you’re a student, parent or teacher, this may not surprise you – you can probably think of many situations where young people care more about the here and now, and less about what today’s decisions mean for tomorrow.

We can think of these moments as self-control failures – an inability to resist immediate temptations (like watching the World Cup) when we’re supposed to be working on long term goals (like achieving good grades).

A one-off lapse in self-control isn’t the worst thing in the world. We do it all the time when we cheat on diets, skip exercise, or procrastinate. We need to enjoy the present from time to time – it’s part of living a happy life. However, low self-control can become a problem when we consistently fail to resist short-term temptations.

A famous example of the consequences of impulsivity is the ‘Marshmallow Experiment’, which found that children who were able to resist eating one marshmallow immediately in order to get two marshmallows later also tended to do better academically and socially when they became teenagers.

A replication of this study recently made headlines as it found these long run effects reduced substantially, or even disappeared, when important background characteristics like family socioeconomic status or early cognitive ability are controlled for. The implications of this replication are that it isn’t self-control per se that influences long run outcomes for children, but that self control is just one of lots of things influenced by socioeconomic status and cognitive ability, which are much more important.

Some have argued this replication shows self-control isn’t all that important for long run life outcomes. It’s worth bearing in mind however that although the marshmallow test is perhaps the most famous study in this area, it is far from the only one. Looking at the broader evidence, self-control in early life appears to be one of the most important psychological characteristics for predicting future success.

For example, a study of 1,000 people in New Zealand, all of whom had their self-control measured in several different ways* as children (rather than just relying on a single, somewhat idiosyncratic measure like the marshmallow test), found that those with more childhood self-control tended to have more health and wealth in their 30s. Other studies examining cohorts of British children who grew up in the 1960s and 70s have also found that the ones with better childhood self-control ended up being less likely to smoke or experience unemployment.

But these studies are all correlational – how do we know self-control is really causing these better life outcomes? One way of answering this question is by looking at studies which try to improve the self-control of young people using a randomised controlled trial (RCT) design. This is where one group of young people get an intervention to increase their self-control, and another similar group do not. Comparing their long-run outcomes can then tell us whether boosting self-control really makes a difference.

Two recent reviews of 90 RCTs provide a decisive answer. These interventions, for example, planning one’s reactions to particular emotional states ahead of time, not only tend to boost childhood self-control, but also translate into improved long-run outcomes including better academic achievement, mental health, and social skills, and fewer problems involving drugs or crime.

So, hard as it may be, for the next month, try not to let the World Cup distract you too much from achieving whatever long-run goals you might have.

One thing that might help is thinking about the tournament from a fresh perspective – namely, by reflecting on the fact that professional footballers tend to have unusually high levels of self-control. Don’t see the World Cup as just an unfortunate distraction to be completely avoided – it’s also a wonderful testament to what people can accomplish through years of focus and dedication.

*There are many validated scales used to measure self-control. Student grades at school also capture elements of self-control, but it is difficult to untangle them from the effects of general intelligence. Triangulating objective measures like grades with self-report measures and some sort of behavioural measure can offer a fuller picture of people’s capacity to exert self-control in various contexts.