The Marshmallow Test of Life: A Lesson in Willpower and Self-Control

Back in the 1960s, Dr. Walter Mischel conducted a series of experiments that have since become fundamental to our understanding of developmental psychology and the implications of self-control.  The results of Mischel’s famous “Stanford Marshmallow Test” have provided insight into the link between delayed gratification (i.e. self-control) and “success” later in life.  In the experiments, a treat (often a marshmallow or cookie) was given to a child on the condition that if they could wait 15 minutes to eat it, they would be given two treats.  The tempting treats were placed on a plate in front of the children and the experimenters left the room.  The children were left alone in the room, with no distractions or advice from outsiders. As you might guess, the majority of children ate the marshmallow before the 15 minutes were up. 

Fast forward. Researchers followed up with the children who are now teenagers.  They found the same participants who exhibited greater self-control when they were children (those who waited long enough to receive the second marshmallow) were now more “successful” as teenagers, as defined by several metrics. The kids who chose delayed gratification in the marshmallow test overall, had higher SAT scores and were described by their parents as being more competent.  Again, researchers followed up with same participants who were now adults, in their 40s and found that those with more willpower as children, now displayed the same increased amount of self-control as adults.  Additionally, when presented with alluring temptations, adults with more self-control showed increased activity in the prefrontal cortex region of the brain (the region of the brain that controls decision making), than those with lower self-control.  Those with less self-control exhibited more activity in the ventral striatum region of the brain, which is a region of the brain thought to be associated with desires and rewards.   

A lesson in self-control/delayed gratification taught to us by children, but the implications reach much further than that. As adults, we are faced with our own version of the marshmallow experiment all day, every day.  Our devices beg us to stop what we’re doing and devote our attention to them instead.  How often do we complete a task without checking our phone, Facebook, or email at least once?  Our devices are a new form of the ever so tempting marshmallow. 

Further, while some things change, some remain the same. As adults, not only are we tempted by our electronic devices and constant, “always on” information feeds, we are still faced with the similar temptations as the children in Mischel’s experiment.  Unhealthy foods are more available and abundant than ever.  Fighting the urge to give in to temptation is a daily battle we face at almost every corner of our environment, including the grocery store, our work environments, and social settings. And, the more we are exposed to these enticing temptations, the more likely we are to give in to them.  Although it differs from person to person, willpower does have its limits. 

However, where there is a will, there is a way, as they say. If we can harness our inner discipline and coach ourselves to wait for the delayed, but equally as good, reward…then we are more likely to accomplish our goals.  Here’s a few thoughts on what we can do:       

  • Assess the situation.  Do you have trouble going longer than 5 minutes without checking your phone or email? How often do find yourself indulging in foods that you know are unhealthy? Are you constantly distracted by social media? These are all good questions to consider when evaluating your lifestyle.  Acknowledging that you are struggling with such distractions is the first step in problem solving. 
  • Make things easier for yourself.  Set guidelines and limits that you think are reasonable to start with and do your best to follow them. As you accomplish your goals, you may want to create more challenging goals over time if you think they would benefit your productivity and health. For example, if seeing your phone on your desk is a constant reminder to use it, then try placing your phone in a drawer. The same goes for social media. If social media is reducing your productivity, then make a point to disable your phone notifications and don’t open the webpage on your computer browser, except for at regular intervals you may set for yourself. Thus, the “always on” feature becomes an “at your will” feature.  
  • Develop a healthy relationship with your mind and body.  We are our own greatest work in progress. By focusing on the foundations of a healthy lifestyle (healthy diet, exercise, and sleep), we are more focused and less tempted to seek out the immediate gratification that also serves as a great distraction.  Think about it, we are more likely to make unhealthy food choices when we are low on sleep, preoccupied with something (e.g. constant incoming information), and in a hurry. Take the time to prioritize your health and wellbeing, set some general guidelines for yourself, and you’ll be amazed at your own progress.     

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