Here are excerpts from Jonah Lehrer's contribution to the Edge.org question "What scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit?" He discusses Mischel's work showing that it is not willpower, but "strategic allocation of attention" that leads to successful life outcomes. His simple experiment was to offer 4-year olds either one marshmallow immediately, or two marshmallows if they waited while he stepped out for a few minutes. Mischel:
...discovered something interesting when he studied the tiny percentage of kids who could successfully wait for the second treat. Without exception, these "high delayers" all relied on the same mental strategy: they found a way to keep themselves from thinking about the treat, directing their gaze away from the yummy marshmallow. Some covered their eyes or played hide-and-seek underneath the desk. Others sang songs from "Sesame Street," or repeatedly tied their shoelaces, or pretended to take a nap. Their desire wasn't defeated — it was merely forgotten. ...Mischel refers to this skill as the "strategic allocation of attention," and he argues that it's the skill underlying self-control. Too often, we assume that willpower is about having strong moral fiber. But that's wrong — willpower is really about properly directing the spotlight of attention, learning how to control that short list of thoughts in working memory.
...this cognitive skill...seems to be a core part of success in the real world...when Mischel followed up with the initial subjects 13 years later — they were now high school seniors — he realized that performance on the marshmallow task was highly predictive on a vast range of metrics. Those kids who struggled to wait at the age of four were also more likely to have behavioral problems, both in school and at home. They struggled in stressful situations, often had trouble paying attention, and found it difficult to maintain friendships. Most impressive, perhaps, were the academic numbers: The little kid who could wait fifteen minutes for their marshmallow had an S.A.T. score that was, on average, two hundred and ten points higher than that of the kid who could wait only thirty seconds.
These correlations demonstrate the importance of learning to strategically allocate our attention. When we properly control the spotlight, we can resist negative thoughts and dangerous temptations. We can walk away from fights and improve our odds against addiction. Our decisions are driven by the facts and feelings bouncing around the brain — the allocation of attention allows us to direct this haphazard process, as we consciously select the thoughts we want to think about.
Furthermore, this mental skill is only getting more valuable. We live, after all, in the age of information, which makes the ability to focus on the important information incredibly important. (Herbert Simon said it best: "A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.") The brain is a bounded machine and the world is a confusing place, full of data and distractions — intelligence is the ability to parse the data so that it makes just a little bit more sense. Like willpower, this ability requires the strategic allocation of attention.