Stresszformator thoughts 2.

Developing self-control makes you smarter

Katalin Lévai | trainer, coach

If we improve our concentration, we can better control our emotional reactions. Increasing our attention and awareness helps developing our thinking and problem-solving skills.

In one of the most famous experiments in the history of psychology, Walter Mischel and his students set 4-year-olds a difficult decision to make. They were given a choice: a small reward (one biscuit), which they could have at any time, or a bigger reward (two biscuits), for which they had to wait 15 minutes, and under difficult conditions.

They had to be alone in a room in front of a table with two objects: a biscuit and a bell, which the child could use to call the experimenter at any time to get the biscuit. According to the experiment description, “There were no toys, books, pictures or other distractions in the room. The experimenter left the room and did not return until 15 minutes had passed or the child had rung the bell, eaten the reward, stood up, or showed any signs of feeling unwell.” Children were observed through a one-way mirror.

About half the children managed to withstand the test for 15 minutes, basically by trying to distract themselves from the tempting reward. 10 or 15 years later, there was a big difference between those who resisted the temptation and those who did not.

Those who successfully resisted had greater executive control over the performance of cognitive tasks and were able to direct their attention more effectively. There were also significant differences in intellectual ability: children who showed greater self-control at age 4 performed significantly better on intelligence tests.

A team of researchers at the University of Oregon has investigated the relationship between cognitive control and intelligence in several ways, including trying to increase intelligence by improving attentional control.

In 40-minute sessions, children aged 4 to 6 played a variety of computer games specifically designed to engage their attention and control functions. In one exercise, children had to use a joystick to find a cat and move it to a grassy area while avoiding muddy areas. As the grassy area gradually contracted and the muddy area became more extensive, greater accuracy and control were required.

The investigators found that developing attention not only improved focus on execution; scores on nonverbal intelligence tests also improved, and the improved scores were maintained for months. The same research team demonstrated a strong link between children’s ability to manage attention and their ability to regulate emotions.

What can these experiments tell us? Ono ne hand, there must be innate differences in how we control ourselves. But the good news is that those who were born with a little less ammunition can also develop their concentration and self-control skills. And the best part is that it can even make you smarter!


D. Kahneman, Thinking fast and slow, HVG, 2013.