Is self-discipline overrated? Is the only benefit of self-control higher report card grades? Are self-disciplined children generally uncreative, anxious, and unhappy? Does contemporary American culture put inordinate emphasis on the virtue of self-discipline? As a research psychologist and former middle and high school math teacher, my answer to all of the above questions is a resounding no.
My view diverges from the perspective offered by Alfie Kohn in his article, "Why Self-Discipline Is Overrated: The (Troubling) Theory and Practice of Control from Within" (Kappan, November 2008).
Kohn defines self-discipline as "marshalling one's willpower to accomplish things that are generally regarded as desirable" and "using that same sort of willpower to prevent oneself from doing what is seen to be undesirable or to delay gratification" (p. 169, emphasis added). But this is not the definition used in the research conducted by Walter Mischel, Roy Baumeister, Marty Seligman, and myself--all of whose work Kohn cites in his article. As we (and most psychologists) use the term, self-discipline is not the ability to accomplish goals which others deem desirable. Rather, self-discipline is the ability to marshal willpower to accomplish goals and uphold standards that one personally regards as desirable. That is, self-discipline isn't the capacity to do what other people order you to do; rather, it is the capacity to do what you want to do. It's knowing how to manage your emotions and thoughts and knowing how to plan your behavior so you can reach your goals. Defined and measured in this way, self-discipline predicts a wide range of positive outcomes.
Consider, for example, Mischel's famous "marsh-mallow studies." In these experiments, preschool children chose between a smaller treat they could have right away and a larger treat that required waiting. Contrary to the grim picture Kohn paints of the self-disciplined child, Mischel and his colleagues found that the number of seconds a young child could wait in this situation predicted not only SAT scores, but also emotional coping skills in adolescence (Mischel, Shoda, and Rodriguez 1989). In adulthood, the ability to delay gratification was found to reduce the negative effects (e.g., low self-esteem, use of crack and cocaine, and low educational attainment) of rejection sensitivity, the disposition to expect, perceive, and overreact to interpersonal rejection (Ayduk et al. …