Growing Willpower

images-6Check out this marvelous article about self-control in this week’s New Yorker by the consistently fascinating Jonah Lehrer . The takeaway: science is giving us a new way to think about willpower as a skill circuit you can hone with the right kind of practice. 

 [When] Mischel gave delay-of-gratification tasks to children from low-income families in the Bronx, he noticed that their ability to delay was below average, at least compared with that of children in Palo Alto. “When you grow up poor, you might not practice delay as much,” he says. “And if you don’t practice then you’ll never figure out how to distract yourself. You won’t develop the best delay strategies, and those strategies won’t become second nature.” In other words, people learn how to use their mind just as they learn how to use a computer: through trial and error.

But Mischel has found a shortcut. When he and his colleagues taught children a simple set of mental tricks—such as pretending that the candy is only a picture, surrounded by an imaginary frame—he dramatically improved their self-control. The kids who hadn’t been able to wait sixty seconds could now wait fifteen minutes. “All I’ve done is given them some tips from their mental user manual,” Mischel says. “Once you realize that will power is just a matter of learning how to control your attention and thoughts, you can really begin to increase it.”

The story also includes an account of how KIPP schools are using these principles to improve their students’ willpower, and includes first mention of what could become this year’s “Vote for Pedro”-style T-shirt catchphrase: “Don’t Eat the Marshmallow.”