Being a successful student may require just as much self-control as intelligence, according to new research published in Perspectives on Psychological Science.
Although most students recognize the importance of education, when they are faced with yet another lecture or homework assignment, nearly all students in one survey said they wished they were doing something else.
“Everyone’s been in this situation, where you’ve got this piece of chocolate cake in front of you and you don’t really want to eat it but you’re so compelled to, and I think students feel this way all the time with their work,” said coauthor Angela Duckworth, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania known for her research on “grit” as a pathway to achievement.
For the research, Duckworth and her colleagues followed 304 eighth-graders. They measured students’ self-control through self-reports, questionnaires completed by parents and teachers, and a set of behavioral delay-of-gratification tasks.
Their findings show that, similar to IQ, students who were rated highly for self-control earned higher grades and standardized test scores. Unlike IQ, however, higher self-control was also linked to fewer school absences, less procrastination, more time spent studying, and less time spent watching television.
Duckworth, who taught middle school math before becoming a university professor, said these findings mirror her own experiences in the classroom.
“Kids actually want to do well,” Duckworth said. “I’ve never met a kid who wants to do worse, but not all of them were able to align their behavior with studying, with homework, with paying attention in class.”
Based on a study of 1,000 students in New Zealand, the researchers also found that ratings of self-control in childhood were just as predictive of a person’s financial security, income, physical and mental health, substance use, and criminal convictions later in life as intelligence or socioeconomic status.
Although self-control can be grouped with conscientiousness, a Big Five personality trait, it also stands as a unique behavioral measure that may significantly impact a person’s overall success.
Self-control exists on the timescale of minutes, said Duckworth. For example, self-control helps someone resist the everyday temptations of texting in class or hitting the snooze button in the morning, whereas grit may provide the persevering passion required to accomplish long-term goals such as winning the National Spelling Bee or getting into your first-choice college.
However, encouraging these types of conscientious behaviors isn’t as simple as telling students to “just use some self-control.” Duckworth said she is most eager about the use of situational habits that make the temptation to neglect schoolwork less powerful – for example turning off your cellphone, or even leaving it in another room, to avoid distracting texts.
“Thinking about ways to avoid these conflicts strategically seems much more efficient, and less torturous over time,” she said.