On Marshmallows and Willpower

August 12, 2009 at 10:01 am (By Maxwell James)

Amba’s recent post on the elements of a successful life, along with Pat HMV’s response, put me in mind of this New Yorker article I read while at the doctor’s office.  Here’s a taste:

In the late nineteen-sixties, Carolyn Weisz, a four-year-old with long brown hair, was invited into a “game room” at the Bing Nursery School, on the campus of Stanford University. The room was little more than a large closet, containing a desk and a chair. Carolyn was asked to sit down in the chair and pick a treat from a tray of marshmallows, cookies, and pretzel sticks. Carolyn chose the marshmallow. Although she’s now forty-four, Carolyn still has a weakness for those air-puffed balls of corn syrup and gelatine. “I know I shouldn’t like them,” she says. “But they’re just so delicious!” A researcher then made Carolyn an offer: she could either eat one marshmallow right away or, if she was willing to wait while he stepped out for a few minutes, she could have two marshmallows when he returned. He said that if she rang a bell on the desk while he was away he would come running back, and she could eat one marshmallow but would forfeit the second. Then he left the room . . .

Carolyn was in the thirty percent of the test subjects able to hold out until the researcher returned fifteen minutes later. But most of the kids couldn’t. They either ended up ringing the bell, or scarfing down one or more of the pieces of candy outright.

The initial goal of the experiment was to identify the mental processes that allowed some people to delay gratification while others simply surrendered. After publishing a few papers on the Bing studies in the early seventies, Mischel moved on to other areas of personality research. “There are only so many things you can do with kids trying not to eat marshmallows.”

Well, so he thought at the time. Actually, it turned out that there was a lot he could do with the kids trying not to eat marshmallows. In 1981, Mischel began to follow up with his test subjects of old, and found that the “high delayers” who were successfully able to hold out for two treats were also largely more successful than the “low delayers” in terms of academic and career achievement, and were considerably less likely to have suffered from behavioral problems. Self-control, it turns out, is significantly more important than even raw IQ in predicting success in life. Score one for M. Scott Peck.

Since then, he and his collaborators have continued to track them through their adulthood, for a while relying on self-reporting, but recently also adding MRI’s and brain imaging technology to the mix, in the hope of producing a neurological map of the parts of the brain involved in self-control. Even more interestingly, their research has already begun to hint at what the essence of self-control actually is:

At the time, psychologists assumed that children’s ability to wait depended on how badly they wanted the marshmallow. But it soon became obvious that every child craved the extra treat. What, then, determined self-control? Mischel’s conclusion, based on hundreds of hours of observation, was that the crucial skill was the “strategic allocation of attention.” Instead of getting obsessed with the marshmallow—the “hot stimulus”—the patient children distracted themselves by covering their eyes, pretending to play hide-and-seek underneath the desk, or singing songs from “Sesame Street.” Their desire wasn’t defeated—it was merely forgotten. “If you’re thinking about the marshmallow and how delicious it is, then you’re going to eat it,” Mischel says. “The key is to avoid thinking about it in the first place.”

In other words – to have willpower is to have some knowledge about how your brain works, and to be able to effectively distract yourself from being overwhelmed by desire or fear. The journalist likens this to Odysseus, tying himself to the mast of his ship in order to hear the Sirens’ song without committing suicide.

The implication of this is that what we think of as “willpower” or self-control may not actually be a force of mind so much as a kind of creativity that relies on self-knowledge and shows itself under duress. If true, I think this thesis would go some way towards reconciling liberal and conservative views over the importance of, and effective approaches towards, teaching ourselves and our children how to self-discipline and delay gratification.

The article ends by noting that the researchers have begun a partnership with KIPP, arguably the most successful of the charter schools, to see if such an approach to self-discipline can be effectively taught in the classroom. Read the whole thing.

UPDATE: I neglected to mention that the article is by Jonah Lehrer, who has a nifty science blog. Thanks, Donna!


  1. Donna B. said,

    Here’s the link to Jonah Lehrer’s blog:

    He writes on all sorts of interesting science stuff.

  2. realpc said,

    They might be testing something different than what they thought. They’re assuming that the kids who were able to wait had better strategies for ignoring their desires than the more impulsive kids. But maybe the kids who did better because of better strategies were just more trusting. Maybe they believed the experimenter would come back pretty soon, and therefore it was worth making an effort to wait. Maybe the kids who couldn’t wait were just less motivated to have patience, because they weren’t so sure the experimenter would come back in a reasonable amount of time.

    The kids who were more trusting might also be more likely to succeed in life. The less trusting kids might have had bad experiences with their parents, causing them to lose faith in authority figures in general. Therefore, they might be less likely to succeed in a world that depends on trust and cooperation.

    I have no idea if any of that is true. I am just mentioning the possibility because psychology experiments often have this kind of problem — experimenters set up an artificial situation and assume it’s just like the real life situation they are trying to simulate.

  3. amba said,

    Utterly fascinating.

    I suck at delay of gratification. I always eat my favorite part of something all up first (both end pieces of a loaf of bread, all the almonds from a nut mix, all the nuts out of nutty ice cream), frequently on the first day I have it. I go read Twitter before I work, instead of afterwards.

    Tricking yourself into something instead of forcing yourself into something is rather like the science-art of “euthenics” — changing human behavior by taking human nature as a given and changing the environment. Likewise capitalism, using greed to supercharge creativity. Strict training in self-denial always exacts a price; energy is conserved, and id is energy. It pops up someplace else. Case in point: Nazi Germany.

  4. Ron said,

    Completely emotionally, I don’t relate at all. All I’ve got is delayed gratification. It isn’t self-denial, either, it’s just making due.

  5. Randy said,

    Thanks for the tip! As Amba says, fascinating stuff. I’m quite interested in seeing the results of the expanded study.

  6. Donna B. said,

    “Strict training in self-denial always exacts a price; energy is conserved, and id is energy. It pops up someplace else. ” –Amba

    Excellent observation.

  7. wj said,

    But one of the places that extra energy can go is into accomplishing something worthwhile. And that, I suspect, is a big part of why those who are capable of delaying gratification end up accomplishing more.

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