In his Morning Jolt, Jim Geraghty links to an old David Brooks column about delayed gratification. We learn about Walter Mischel's classic experiment where he took a bunch of 4-year-olds and ran a test where they were left alone in a room. They were told they could eat a marshmallow if they rang a bell. If they didn't ring the bell and waited for the instructor to come back into the room, they could have two.
The children who waited longer went on to get higher SAT scores. They got into better colleges and had, on average, better adult outcomes. The children who rang the bell quickest were more likely to become bullies. They received worse teacher and parental evaluations 10 years on and were more likely to have drug problems at age 32.
The Mischel experiments are worth noting because people in the policy world spend a lot of time thinking about how to improve education, how to reduce poverty, how to make the most of the nation's human capital. But when policy makers address these problems, they come up with structural remedies: reduce class sizes, create more charter schools, increase teacher pay, mandate universal day care, try vouchers.
The results of these structural reforms are almost always disappointingly modest. And yet policy makers rarely ever probe deeper into problems and ask the core questions, such as how do we get people to master the sort of self-control that leads to success?
Brooks mentions this study in the context of talking about public policy. He argues that teaching self-control is necessary to keep society from breaking down and that a lot of our current problems are linked to this breakdown.
My childhood included much discipline that led to good skills in self-control. So I thank my mother and father. I've certainly noticed how a failure to instill discipline in children can have horrific results.
I'm less interested in what the state can do regarding self-control failures and more interested in what individual families and communities can do to help. Is there only a limited time to instill discipline in a person and, if that window of opportunity passes, nothing much can be done? Has anyone here successfully taught himself self-control?