The Importance of: Self-control

Our character curriculum is centred on building four key character traits discussed in relation to human flourishing and success since the times of Classical Greek Philosophy: resilience, self-controlgood judgement and fairness. Why do we focus on these traits? This series, called “The importance of”, explores the importance of each of these four traits.

Self-control includes being able to stay on task and interrupt any undesired impulsive reactions by refraining from acting on them.

Self-control and achievement

Being high in controlling our desires and impulses is important in achieving the goals we set for ourselves. While it is reasonable to assume that those higher in self-control would have higher grades, research has in fact found self-control to outdo even intelligence in predicting good academic performance. This is mostly because young people high in self-control spend more time doing their homework, have higher school attendance, focus in class more, and have higher grades (Duckworth & Seligman, 2005).

On the other hand, low self-control is linked to a variety of difficulties, including academic underachievement, an unhealthy lifestyle, procrastination and problems with the law (Moffitt et al., 2011).

In the classic Marshmallow experiment, Walter Mischel and his colleagues gave children a marshmallow and explained that they would get another one if they managed not to eat it until the experimenter returned. Those who were able to control their impulses and delay gratification were found years later to have higher academic achievements (Mischel, 2014). Being able to manage and regulate needs, desires and emotions are thus vital to performing well academically and sticking to school tasks.

Self-control and well-being

Self-regulatory skills also predict reduced stress and increased wellbeing. Hoffman et al. (2014) found that people with more self-control feel happier and are gladder about their life. This is partly because of lower emotional distress and avoiding difficult emotional conflict that comes with giving in to tempting impulses.

Emotional awareness is key in this process. Self-control doesn’t entail disregarding emotional responses, but on the other hand depends on the information provided by emotional awareness, including identifying our emotions as well as understanding why we feel the way we feel. This awareness has been found to be associated with depression and well-being both directly and indirectly, by promoting emotion regulation and self-control (Boden & Thompson, 2015).


Boden, M. T., & Thompson, R. J. (2015). Facets of emotional awareness and associations with emotion regulation and depression. Emotion, 15(3), 399-410.

Duckworth, A. L., & Seligman, M. E. (2005). Self-discipline outdoes IQ in predicting academic performance of adolescents. Psychological science16(12), 939-944.

Mischel, W. (2014). The marshmallow test: understanding self-control and how to master it. Random House.

Moffitt, T. E., Arseneault, L., Belsky, D., Dickson, N., Hancox, R. J.,Harrington, H., et al. (2011). A gradient of childhood self-controlpredicts health, wealth, and public safety. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America,108, 2693–2698.

Hofmann, W., Luhmann, M., Fisher, R. R., Vohs, K. D., & Baumeister, R. F. (2014). Yes, but are they happy? Effects of trait self‐control on affective well‐being and life satisfaction. Journal of Personality82(4), 265-277.

For more information on the Marshmallow experiment, watch this video of Walter Mischel talking about the test and self-control