Self-Discipline Outdoes IQ in Predicting Academic Performance of Adolescents

This was the title of a research study conducted by Angela Duckworth and Martin Seligman of the Positive Psychology Centre, University of Pennsylvania. Martin Seligman is considered the founder of Positive Psychology, so I would take any research that comes from him seriously.

Here is the gist of the study:

They were curious – how do we explain the diverse range of performance among children of EQUAL IQ? What is it about top students that sets them apart? They had an idea that non-intellectual strengths (self-discipline, motivation) might have something to do with it but found that weren’t that many studies done on it.

Studies conducted in the 1980s and 1990s by Mischel and his colleagues had shown a correlation between the ability to delay gratification at age 4 with higher academic and social functioning at age 14.

In 1995 Wolfe and Johnson found self discipline to be the ONLY 1 among 32 personality variables (self esteem, extra-version, ) that predicted GPAs better than SAT scores.

Duckworth and Seligman  got 2 cohorts of 13 year old students to participate in their study. These 300 odd study participants were followed for more than half a year. In the beginning of the school year, the students were tested for IQ and scored for self discipline (they used student, teacher and parent reporting for this) and then 7 months later their academic performance data was recorded.

The results?

“Highly self-discipline adolescents outperformed their more impulsive peers on every academic performance variable, including report-card grades, standardized achievement-test scores, admission to a competitive high school and attendance” (Duckworth & Seligman:941).

On another note, I believe that having self discipline is not just about leading to academic performance. It’s about emotional well being. I think you need a fair amount of self discipline to be emotionally happy as a child and adult. If we acted on all our impulses,  where would we end up. I think about how some people like to shoot off their mouths, saying whatever comes to mind, and hurting the other person , regretting it later… that’s a lack of self-discipline. Adultery happens because of the lack of self discipline afterall, it is possible that a spouse at some point in his/her life be attracted to someone else (for whatever reasons), but what makes the the difference is self-discipline isn’t it?

So what does this mean for parents like you and me? How do we utilize this knowledge to our children’s advantage?

Here’s my 2 cents worth:

1. Help your kid develop delay gratification skills

This point warrants a whole post by itself but what this means is that make sure the kid can wait for a good thing. Nowadays, everything is instantaneous – I want it NOW! I want to feel good NOW! I want my toy NOW! Show children that good things take time – start small – perhaps something they like to eat.

For example, like most children, Bea loves baking muffins. So we start right from the beginning of mixing, adding stuff (ok, I admit that I am a terrible baker – I don’t follow recipes and tend to add whatever catches my fancy – chia seeds, prunes, cranberries, goji berries, blue berries, carrots – to the basic muffin recipe. My friend, S, who is a good baker, is always shocked by my methods). So Bea uses the butter knife to chop, then mixes the dough and scoops it out to the muffin cups and we watch the muffins rise in the oven. I’d like to think that it’s a great way to enjoy each other’s company through a process with a yummy outcome!

Making oatmeal muffins

Making oatmeal muffins


Watching the muffins rise

Watching the muffins rise


Tadahh! Ready to eat!

Tadahh! Ready to eat!

I just read the Kite Runner, and there is a beautiful part where one of the characters, Shorab remembers what his mother taught him:

“One time, when I was really little, I climbed a tree and ate these green, sour apples. My stomach swelled and became hard like a drum, it hurt a lot. Mother said that if I’d just waited for the apples to ripen, I wouldn’t have become sick. So now, whenever I really want something, I try to remember what she said about the apples.”

2. Praise the kid for her efforts

Only praise the kid “Wow, you are so smart!” when they are really so smart. Kids are not  stupid – they know what is superficial praise and what elicits honest to goodness praise. Other types of praises are just as invaluable. “You kept trying to get that right, that’s really good.” “I like how you managed to fix your Lego creation even though there were missing pieces.”

3. Limit exposure to electronic games

You know why electronic games are such a great stress reliever? Instant gratification! Instant relieve! But when we let our kids play with no limits, we are endangering them in a sense, their brains are going to be wired for instant gratification. Something needs to happen when they press a key, doesn’t matter what but something has to happen. But in the real world, sometimes, nothing happens for a while, even when you do something.  When you are learning a new skill or trying to improve on one, for a while, there is a learning curve where NOTHING HAPPENS. When that occurs, you want the kid to be able to be able to soldier on with the trust and belief that something will happen when you apply yourself.  You can read about more ideas on limiting your kid’s technology use here.

4. Model self-discipline

For all our yodeling about self-discipline, there is nothing more effective than doing it yourself in order for the kid to learn that good things come to those who work at it. Even when you feel like throwing that damn 100 page report you have to submit to your boss – lock yourself in the toilet and do it.

I was surprised last term by what  Bea did during her school outing to Pizza Hut. After the kitchen tour, the kids were given pizza, chicken wings and fries. When I picked her up, she said

B: “I ta pau (doggy bagged) the fries and chicken wings”

M: “Huh? You didn’t eat it?”

B: “I am coughing, and I shouldn’t eat them.”

Mentally, I staggered back – shocked! My daughter probably has more self-discipline than I had at age 6. I mean it’s fries and chicken wings!! All I could say was:

M: “Wow! I’m so proud of you. My goodness, you controlled yourself huh?”

Later on, when I thought about it, I realised that her school has a culture of self-discipline. Children with allergies naturally decline cake, sweets and no one batters an eyelid. There is no badgering by other children to eat nor any social recriminations.  So , that’s how it should be in an ideal environment that cultivates self discipline.


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