Self-regulation is one of Seligman’s VIA character strengths and it is also included in Mightifier’s set of strength. But why is self-regulation such an important skill to master and what does it mean to be good at it? Let us explain a bit.

Hot and cool system

Self-regulation is often described in a context of hot and cool systems. What it means is that a hot system is reactive, fast and imprudent. You will act before you give it thorough thought. A cool system is calmer setup which includes cognitive processing and deliberative consideration. A hot system will reward you immediately and gives you a good feeling right away, while a cool system helps you to pursue goals and reach long-term rewards by delaying gratification.  A hot and cool system plays an important part in self-control and willpower.

As an adult, self-regulation ability is critical, for instance in adapting new habits, making smart life choices and coping in challenging social situations. Therefore, it is important to learn to master the skill in childhood.

For a kid, to sit quietly in the classroom, queue neatly, give a turn to others and restrain anger are all difficult skills. They are practices that require cool deliberation and hence should not be taken for granted.An inability to employ the cool system, can lead to disrespectful behaviour and even bullying.

The famous Marshmallow test

The Marshmallow test is a famous psychological experiment about the self-regulation of young children. In the experiment, the kids had to sit with some nice treats, like a cookie or a marshmallow, in front of them and wait for the researcher. Children had two options: they could eat the treat while the researcher was not in the room or they could wait for the researcher to come back and then have two treats. Guess which of the choices predicted better performance in later life?

Why to master the self-regulation skill?

 By now, it is clear that self-regulation ability in young children is highly correlated with success in life in their later years. Self-regulation helps to achieve better grades: In the Marshmallow test, the ability to resist a temptation in childhood predicted higher SAT scores in the future (don’t we all know that expertise is at least as much about persistence than natural intelligence).

Perhaps even more critical, self-regulation skills at younger age predicts more developed social skills, higher self-esteem, goal-striving ability and better coping skills as an adolescent. Researchers believe that these kinds of social skills will become even more essential in today’s global world.

Research shows that kids with self-regulation skills tend to also have better self-efficacy beliefs. On the other hand, people who believe in their own capabilities, are perceived to be better in controlling their behaviour. Positive feedback will support kids in discovering their strengths and building a competent self-image.

Self-regulation is not a permanent attribute

So, self-regulation seems to be quite an important ability, doesn’t it? If you think that it is not your top strength, we have some good news for you. Over the decades, willpower was considered as a permanent attribute – you either had it or you didn’t.

However, present research shows that self-regulation can be practiced and it can be boosted by different strategies.

 In the Marshmallow test, researchers found out something interesting from our point of view. If the kids had received positive feedback before the situation, where they needed self-regulation, they were willing to choose delayed reward more often than immediate reward. Could it be so, that positive feedback also increases the likelihood and willingness to resist a temptation? Looking at you, candy bar.

References: Walter Mischel – The Marshmallow Test