CHILDREN WITH WILL POWER. I posted here about psychological research that supported the view that each of us has a fixed budget of will power. If we use our will power for some purposes there will be less will power available for other purposes. As I posted here, there is evidence that the exercise of will power strengthens will power (as if it were a muscle). Jonah Lehrer had an article in the May 18 New Yorker about research by Walter Mischel that supports the view that children who have more ability to defer gratification at the age of 4 continue to have more self control when they are adults. Children who showed on the “marshmallow test” that they could defer gratification did better academically and had fewer behavior problems in later life. (The “marshmallow test” measures how long a person–say, a four year old–can hold out on eating a marshmallow with the reward being an additional marshmallow in a few minutes). Researchers are trying to identify the brain activity associated with the exercise of self control. Here is Jonah Lehrer’s blog, the Frontal Cortex.

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  1. Margo Schaefer says:

    I remember telling my mother about that study about children and the reward (in the version I heard it was a cookie) and her reply was that it was merely testing intelligence, not a separate self control ability. So of course the ones who resist temptation do better later…

  2. Molly says:

    I tried the test (a cookie test) for both my kids when they were 4. Ava was able to pass, with great effort. It was more complicated for Mia, who said, “Mommy, I’m happy to wait, but I only want one cookie! Do I have to eat two?”

  3. Philip says:

    Margo is right to point out that an alternative explanation is that it takes intelligence to figure out how to manage your attention. I am often interested in the results of psychological experiments, but it is difficult for them to eliminate alternative explanations and other variables.

  4. Philip says:

    Wonderful story, Molly. Perhaps Mia’s story illustrates the fact that some people are born with the inclination to live moderately.

  5. Margo Schaefer says:

    This is in response to Phil’s comment above. To me, what the intelligent child does is not manage his/her attention but have the ability to manage impulses and see that the reward for waiting is so much more than the immediate reward that she/he should wait. If it were 20 M and M’s versus 21 M and M’s, it’s not clear that one should wait. In a way, it’s calculating the time value of the two rewards!

  6. Molly says:

    I think the studies had said it was not related to I.Q… and, since I have some current experience with four-year-olds, I can say there are some VERY smart kids I know who would not pass this test. Impulse control is very different from native intelligence.

  7. Mary Jane Schaefer says:

    There is a philosophical category called The Influence of the Will on Judgment. I think it accounts for the many stupid things very smart people do.


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