Angela DuckworthOn April 17, 2019, more than 210 people were in attendance as the Center for Decision Research welcomed psychologist and best-selling author Angela Duckworth, who presented her talk, "Strategic Self-Control.” Duckworth’s lecture and audience discussion were part of CDR’s ongoing Think Better speaker series, which explores how insights from behavioral science affect society, shape policy, impact business, and improve individual lives.

Angela Duckworth is the Founder and CEO of Character Lab, a nonprofit that provides actionable advice to parents and teachers, based on science. She is also the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, a 2013 MacArthur Fellow, and the author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, a #1 New York Times best seller.

Discussing self-control, which she called a cousin of her widely cited work on grit, Duckworth presented some of her research and insights into the ways that we can intervene on our own behalf to help create habits and situations that make self-control less arduous and more accessible.

“If you’re human, you struggle with self-control,” Duckworth said. “Self-control unfolds over the time course of seconds or minutes or hours, whereas grit I think of as a long-term, abiding commitment that stretches decades, or a lifetime.”

Duckworth Event 

Duckworth recounted the ways in which she has developed her thinking about self-control, from her early professional experience as a math teacher in middle and high school to her original behavioral science research, and the analysis of other research and data. Key to her work are the insights from the psychologist Walter Mischel, whose famous “marshmallow” test sought to measure the relationship between a child’s ability to delay gratification and his or her long-term life outcomes. For Duckworth, an essential lesson from Mischel’s research, which documented the ways in which children tried to delay their consumption of the marshmallow, is that self-control relies on strategies and tactics that can be taught.


In Duckworth’s model of self-control strategies, she builds off the work of the psychologist James Gross, whose process model of emotion regulation focused on five moments in the creation or regulation of emotion. Duckworth’s five kinds of self-control strategies are: situation selection, situation modification, selective attention, cognitive reappraisal, and response modulation.

Duckworth’s goal is to help people leverage short-term strategies in service of establishing long-term habits. She created her nonprofit, Character Lab, as a way to deploy these strategies, especially for young people, in the hopes that it puts them on a better course in their lives.