Series on Emotional Intelligence: Self regulation

Willpower affects many areas of life, including personal decisions, social interactions and conduct in social settings like school and the workplace. Self-control, along with intelligence, is considered by psychologists to be two key human traits that produce many benefits for people and others around them.


For most of the 20th century, scientists have worshiped the hardware powers of the brain, but there has not been any significant attempt to study the software powers of the heart. Walter Mischel, a psychologist at Stanford University, took up the challenge and studied the value of emotional intelligence. He, like many of us, wanted to know the answers to certain perplexing questions: why some people seem to have a gift for living well; why the smartest kid in the class may not end up as the richest; why some people are liked almost instantly and others are distrusted; why some people remain buoyant in the face of troubles which would sink a less resilient soul. In short, what are the qualities of brain and heart that determine success. He decided to conduct a psychological experiment on small children to find out the real story. Mischel distributed marshmallows (a kind of sweet) to groups of 4-year-olds and left the room, promising that any child who could postpone eating the marshmallows until he came back, 15 to 20 minutes later, would be rewarded with a second marshmallow.

Not all the children, however, behaved or followed his instructions identically. Some of them just could not resist the temptation to eat the marshmallow immediately. Some waited for a few minutes, and then decided that there was no fun in waiting for a second one, and that it would be wiser to eat the one which was in hand. Some fantasized with closed eyes that they were eating the marshmallows and tried to wait for the return of Mischel. Significantly, there were still some kids who did not allow tempting thought(s) to sway them, and did not touch the marshmallows at all till Mischel returned.

This experiment further reported that some of the children had been able to think differently. They had resorted to singing, tapping their feet, telling themselves stories, and imagining that the marshmallow was a fluffy cloud, to avoid eating it. Interestingly enough, one kid had even fallen asleep with the marshmallow in his hand! Mischel came to the conclusion that the different moods of the children reflected the amount of emotional intelligence they exhibited. Does this experiment really provide a fundamental measure of emotional intelligence? What does it shows us to prove the importance of emotional intelligence?

Follow-up studies by Mischel 12–14 years later revealed that the children who had triumphed over their desire to delay eating the marshmallows had grown more socially competent and self-assertive and exhibited a higher degree of resilience in dealing with life’s frustrations. Those who had won the second marshmallow were still better at delayed gratification and had applied this attribute in pursuit of their goals. Those who had given in to their desire and had eaten the first marshmallow immediately without waiting, had grown into more stubborn, indecisive and stressed adolescents. The quality of self-control in avoiding eating the marshmallow at the age of 4 turned out to be twice as powerful a predictor of later success in life as compared to IQ. In this experiment, the ability to delay gratification of eating the marshmallow was seen as a master skill, a triumph of the reasoning of the brain over the emotions of the heart.

The conclusion derived from this classical experiment is that the capacity to put off rewards is a single skill that psychologists pinpoint as an indicator of success in life. Mischel’s study confirmed that emotional intelligence does not show up in IQ tests and needs to be viewed from an entirely different angle. The marshmallow experiment established that emotional intelligence, in which self-control plays a huge part, matters more than anything else in determining success in life.

Source: Emotional Intelligence at work, by Dalip SIngh