Self-Regulation and Schooling

What is it about school and preschool that enhances intelligence and academic abilities? Content knowledge (e.g., learning about climate in different places in the world) and procedural knowledge (e.g., sorting shapes) are of course important, but increasingly scientists are recognizing the importance of developing self-regulatory skills and other noncognitive traits as requisite for high-level intellectual functioning.1 Self-regulatory skills include behaviors such as being able to wait in line, inhibiting the desire to call out in class, and persevering at a task that may be boring or difficult. There are many terms in the research literature for the general idea that people can recognize, alter, and maintain changes in their behaviors and moods in ways that advance cognitive performance. These terms include self-discipline,2 the ability to delay gratification,3 and self-regulated learning.4

A classic study of self-regulation found that 4-year-old children who delayed the immediate gratification of eating one marshmallow so that they would be allowed to eat two marshmallows later scored higher on the SAT they took for college entrance more than a decade later.5 A study with similar implications was conducted with eighth-grade students at a magnet public school.6 Students were given envelopes that contained $1. They could either spend the dollar or exchange the envelope for one containing $2 the following week. In addition, students were rated on numerous other measures of self-discipline. The authors reported that scores on a composite measure of self-discipline predicted academic performance and learning gains over the academic year in which the study was conducted and did so better than IQ tests. Similar studies with college students at Ivy League schools, students at a military academy, and spelling bee participants found that self-discipline and ability to delay gratification predicted success across a variety of academic measures.7

There is evidence that self-control, or at any rate some set of noncognitive motivational factors, contributes not only to life outcomes but to IQ scores themselves. A team of researchers has shown in a meta-analysis of more than 40 samples that incentives for good test performance improve IQ scores by about 10 points.8 For samples for which the average baseline IQ was less than 100, the gain due to incentives was about 14 points. The lower the baseline IQ, the greater the gain due to incentives, and the larger the incentives offered, the larger the IQ gain. The investigators also examined the correlates of assessed test-taking motivation (based on refusal to attempt parts of the test, responding rapidly with "I don't know" answers, etc.) for a group of middle school boys. IQ predicted academic outcomes in adolescence and total years of education by the age of 24. So did the nonintellective traits, though to a lesser degree. Nonintellective traits predicted nonacademic outcomes—criminal convictions and employment in adulthood—as well as IQ did.     

Richard E. Nisbett is the Theodore M. Newcomb Distinguished University Professor at the University of Michigan, a research professor with the university's Institute for Social Research, and a codirector of its Culture and Cognition Program. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2002 and has earned numerous professional accolades, including the Distinguished Senior Scientist Award from the Society of Experimental Social Psychology, the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the American Psychological Association, and a John Simon Guggenheim fellowship. He has written several books, including Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count.


1. Clancy Blair, "School Readiness: Integrating Cognition and Emotion in a Neurobiological Conceptualization of Children's Functioning at School Entry," American Psychologist 57, no. 2 (2002): 111–127; Maria D. Calero, Maria B. Garcia-Martin, Maria I. Jimenez, Miguel Kazen, and Arsenio Araque, "Self-Regulation Advantage for High-IQ Children: Findings from a Research Study," Learning and Individual Differences 17, no. 4 (2007): 328–343; Raj Chetty, John N. Friedman, Nathaniel Hilger, Emmanuel Saez, Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, and Danny Yagan, How Does Your Kindergarten Classroom Affect Your Earnings? Evidence from Project STAR (Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research, 2010); Adele Diamond, W. Steven Barnett, Jessica Thomas, and Sarah Munro, "Preschool Program Improves Cognitive Control," Science 318, no. 5855 (2007): 1387–1388; James J. Heckman, "Skill Formation and the Economics of Investing in Disadvantaged Children," Science 312, no. 5782 (2006): 1900–1902; and James J. Heckman, "The American Family in Black & White: A Post-Racial Strategy for Improving Skills to Promote Equality," Daedalus 140, no. 2 (2011): 70–89.

2. Angela L. Duckworth and Martin E.P. Seligman, "Self-Discipline Outdoes IQ in Predicting Academic Performance of Adolescents," Psychological Science 16, no. 12 (2005): 939–944.

3. Walter Mischel, Yuichi Shoda, and Philip K. Peake, "The Nature of Adolescent Competencies Predicted by Preschool Delay of Gratification," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 54, no. 4 (1988): 687–696.

4. Patricia A. Alexander, "Why This and Why Now? Introduction to the Special Issue on Metacognition, Self-Regulation, and Self-Regulated Learning," Educational Psychology Review 20, no. 4 (2008): 369–372.

5. Mischel, Shoda, and Peake, "The Nature of Adolescent Competencies."

6. Duckworth and Seligman, "Self-Discipline Outdoes IQ."

7. Angela L. Duckworth, Christopher Peterson, Michael D. Matthews, and Dennis R. Kelly, "Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 92, no. 6 (2007): 1087–1101.

8. Angela L. Duckworth, Patrick D. Quinn, Donald R. Lynam, Rolf Loeber, and Magda Stouthamer-Loeber, "Role of Test Motivation in Intelligence Testing," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (published online, April 25, 2011; print forthcoming).

Reprinted from American Educator, Spring 2013

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American Educator, Spring 2013