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Impulse Control In Early Life : Study Showing Its Vital Importance


We have already seen that those who suffer such severe, protracted childhood trauma that they go on to develop borderline personality disorder (BPD) have very significant problems regarding self-regulation (i.e, controlling intense emotions) and with IMPULSE CONTROL (along with a wide range of other symptoms).

This impaired ability to control impulses, in turn, can have a seriously adverse effect on myriad aspects of the individual’s life, potentially leading to, for example, relationships problems, substance abuse, gambling, compulsive sex, poor financial control due to compulsive shopping, lowered work /academic accomplishments, violent outbursts and many other difficulties.

In this article, I will briefly outline a study that helps to show the relationship between poor impulse control in childhood and later life success :


The study was conducted by Walter Mischel and E.B Ebbeson. A group of children were given two options :

OPTION ONE: They could have one marshmallow immediately.

OR :

OPTION TWO: They could have two marshmallows if they were prepared to wait fifteen minutes for them.

The children were then left alone with the marshmallows.


Some children gave in to temptation immediately and some managed to defer gratification for a short amount of time (but not the full fifteen minutes).

HOWEVER: About one-third of the children were able to defer gratification for the FULL FIFTEEN MINUTES (in the main they distracted themselves from the temptation to eat the marshmallow by playing or singing to themselves, according to the researchers).

TWELVE  YEARS LATER, a follow-up study was carried out on these same individuals. The results of this follow-up study were :

The individuals’ PERFORMANCE ON THE IMPULSE CONTROL TEST (as described above) was more highly correlated with future life success than any other measure, including socioeconomic status and I.Q.

In other words, on average, the children who managed to wait the full fifteen minutes before eating went on to have significantly more successful lives (as defined and measured by the twelve-year follow-up study) than those children who were unable to do so. The fact that the level of an individual’s impulse control appears, according to this particular study, to be a better predictor of that same individual’s future life success than either their socioeconomic status or I.Q. implies that how well we are able to control our impulses is of vital importance.


However, researchers from New York and California Universities have unsuccessfully attempted to replicate the results of the above study to help confirm its reliability. More specifically, their study suggested that differences in levels of impulsivity found in 4 – year – olds had largely disappeared by the time that these same children reached the age of fifteen.once the confounding variable of these children’s parents had been controlled for.

In contrast to Mischell’s and Ebbeson’s study, this second study found that by the time children were fifteen years old, the children of wealthier parents, in general, had better impulse control than fifteen-year-olds from less wealthy families, irrespective of the level of impulse control the children had (from either wealthy or less wealthy families) at the age of four.

Related Post: Childhood Trauma: Is PTSD Being Misdiagnosed As ADHD?



David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE)