Many of you will have heard of The Marshmallow Test created by Walter Mischel, but for those of you that haven’t here is a brief description:
A researcher takes a child into a room. In this room is a table and chair, and sat all comfy like on top of the table is a stunningly white marshmallow shining with saccharine glory. Also on the table is a bell.
The researcher: I have to leave the room for a little bit. If you stay seated and don’t eat the marshmallow before I come back, I’ll give you another marshmallow and you can eat both. But if you eat this here marshmallow, you shan’t get another.
If for any reason you want me to come back early, just ring the bell and I’ll come right back. But if you ring the bell, unfortunately, you won’t get the second marshmallow.
Child: Yes. [Stares longingly into the cloud-like sugar lump]
Some children are able to wait an inordinate amount of time while others briefly wrestle with their lust and then cave, shoving the entire marshmallow into their salivating mouth and fiendishly tearing it apart with incisors and molars and all other teeth types currently available for the job. A heavenly 2 seconds pass and the marshmallow is gone and all that is left is the realisation that they failed and would be unable to secure the second marshmallow.
The researchers led by Walter Mischel wanted to study what distinguished the children with self-control from those who gave in to their desires.
They found that the children who were able to resist the longest implemented at least one of the following tactics:
Distraction: playing games, creating stories, singing, talking about anything other than the test at hand, picking their orifices.
Concealment: hiding the marshmallow under the plate so there was no visual trigger.
Aversion: transforming the marshmallow into something unappealing – for example making it rotten with rats picking at it and flies all around it.
Abstraction: imagining the marshmallow is merely an image, instead of a real, tangible, stick-it- in-your-mouth-get-sugar-rush-able.
Happy Thoughts: children that thought happy thoughts were able to last 3 times as long as children who thought sad thoughts.
Informational focus: instead of focusing on the arousing aspects of marshmallows: chewy, sweet, makes me feel good; focusing on the informational aspects: white, soft, round, small.
If researchers encouraged children to use one of these tactics they consistently found that children were able to last much longer on average. This suggests that self-control has a lot to do with the tactics we know and implement and a lot less to do with some innate ability or reserve of willpower. This is encouraging for those of us who struggle with self-control. We do not have to remain a victim of genetics or our environment. We can instead take control of our thoughts and actions – our lives – and live happier, more fulfilled, more successful lives. Sounds good to me!
Walter Mischel and his team tracked the children who took the test over a number of years to see if the willpower exhibited in childhood had any impact on success later on in life. Predictably, it did. Children who waited longer on The Marshmallow test had more money, higher incomes, more prestigious jobs, considered themselves happier, didn’t consider themselves stressed out, had more successful relationships, were far less likely to have a criminal record, and even lived longer.
In this book, Walter Mischel takes the lessons learned from The Marshmallow test, as well as drawing on decades worth of research, to provide us with tactics for greater self-control.
The book is predominantly focused on parenting, education, and public policy. But there are still many lessons to be gleaned for the adult looking to develop more willpower and that’s what I’ll focus on here. My intention is that after reading this you’ll walk away with the book’s best material without needing to read 280 pages. But of course, if you have the time The Marshmallow Test is a highly recommended read. I certainly won’t be able to cover all of the value jam-packed into the book so go buy it for something more comprehensive.
Note 1: I won’t be going deep into the science of the brain, this summary will focus almost entirely on the practical applications of the science referenced in The Marshmallow Test.
Note 2: There are Amazon affiliate links in this article. You are under no obligation to click them. But if you are interested in what I recommend and want to invest in your learning then using link will not cost you any more than if you were to find it yourself on Amazon (I always find the cheapest listing), BUT it will help support the upkeep of this website. I think that’s a beautiful, symbiotic way to help each other 🙂
Hot & Cold Thinking
This section references Thinking Fast & Slow By Daniel Kehneman (another great book and more significant in its findings and resulting impact on psychology in general, buy it here).
Damn, This Thinking Is Hot!
The hot emotional system results in thinking fast and the cool cognitive system results in thinking slow. The emotional system is automatic, impulsive, and triggers instantaneous reactions. It’s perfect for running from those who wish to do to us harm or acting on sexual opportunity while it’s there or fuelling up on sugar when you find it. If we take too long ruminating over whether or not to act, we’ve missed our opportunity to act and lose out.
But often this system can cause us to follow our impulses even when we’d rather we didn’t. I’m sure you can remember times where you’ve told yourself you were going to quit something and you felt a strong motivation to follow through for the betterment of your health or relationships or productivity (or all three) only to minutes later find yourself indulging and confused at how you arrived at this place when you so desperately hope you wouldn’t.
You’re As Cold As Ice, I’m Willing To Sacrifice
I don’t know what the Foreigner’s were singing about in Cold As Ice, but it’s likely the cool cognitive system. This system is reflective and slower to activate. It is essential for future-oriented decisions and self-control efforts.
You can imagine the two systems like weights on a balance scale: as one system becomes heavier than the other, its weighing pan moves closer to the ground (more active) and, simultaneously, the other system moves further away from the ground (less active). The hot emotional system and the cool cognitive system are constantly vying for control and only one system can come out on top at any given moment.
Prolonged High-stress attenuates the cool cognitive system and accentuates the hot emotional system. So if we want to reduce the likelihood that our response is hot, we must do what we can to reduce chronic stress.
A tool for dealing more effectively with addictions or compulsions is If-Then Planning. When the cool cognitive system is in control, you think of situations in which there are enticing hot triggers for you – that’s the if – and then you plan what you’ll do should that situation arise again.
For example, if I’m asked if I want to see the dessert menu, then I’ll say no. Or, if I need to study, then I’ll turn my phone off so my friends can’t contact me and convince me to go twerking (I am so out of touch with what students do, haha).
Cues can be either external (when I hear the alarm; when I see someone I don’t like) or internal (when I’m sad/angry/ frustrated). By doing this, apparently you can make your hot system reflexively trigger the desired response and over time a new habit is formed and the effort needed to control is gone.
I have tried this many times and don’t find it as effective as Walter Mischel seems to: ‘If I’m working, I won’t look at my phone.’ *Starts working, looks at phone.*
But it’s certainly worth experimenting with for yourself. Maybe I just haven’t had solid enough ‘thens’. Maybe my if-then needs to be ‘If I need to study, I’ll give my phone to a friend for the day.’ Something that is hard to back out of.
Some people don’t expect delayed rewards to be delivered because they haven’t been delivered in the past. Given this trend of consistent broken trust, these individuals choose to stop waiting for delayed rewards to be fulfilled and instead look for instant gratification. In this instance, seeking instant rewards is the rational behaviour given the individual’s environment.
If you struggle to self-control, it’s important to look around you and behind you and see whether maybe your environment has triggered that behaviour. Maybe your father left you as a child. This may cause you to seek pleasure in the now when you know for certain it’s available, rather than wait for some conceptual, vague promise of something better in the future.
You see, at one point you had faith that your father would be there through your whole life. You took this for granted. With that trust broken, you no longer take for granted that things here today will be with you tomorrow.
Note: If you identify yourself as someone with trust issues, then it becomes imperative to prove to yourself time and time again that the delayed rewards are actually worth waiting for. You can use Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) to cognitively grasp this:
‘If I defer gratification, then instead of having £2000 in savings, I’ll have £20,000.’
‘If I defer gratification, then instead of having a sugar-based coma every evening, feeling terrible, and piling on the pounds, I’ll eat healthily, feel great, look incredible, live longer, do better at work, and get the woman of my dreams.’
Comparing the life instant gratification will bring you to the life deferred gratification will bring you creates a very compelling case in favour of harnessing willpower to focus on long-term rewards.
This may be enough to inspire you to build the self-discipline of a Himalayan monk. But if it’s not, then pairing it with positive results from long-term action certainly will. Do this one small step at a time.
So instead of watching tv right now, tell yourself you’ll read a book/study/apply for jobs/whatever for 1 minute first. When you complete that task, think about what you’ve achieved, realise you’re that much closer to your goal and give yourself a pat on the back. Day by day, add a little more self-control into the mix. And as you see the rewards flooding in, your faith will come back.
Executive functions are the cognitive skills that let us exert deliberate, conscious control over thoughts, impulses, actions, and emotions. *Is learning about executive function necessary?
Each child who successfully waited for had three features of executive function:
- They actively kept in mind their chosen goal and the contingency: ‘If I eat one now, I don’t get two later.’
- They monitored their progress toward the goal and made adjustments along the way by oscillating between goal-oriented thoughts and temptation reducing thoughts.
- They inhibited impulsive responses such as thinking about how appealing the marshmallow looked or reaching out to touch it.
*There is a section of the book that talks about how our thoughts about our ability have a huge impact on our actual ability. Think you’re a social butterfly? Then you’re likely to be. Think you’re uninteresting and unappealing to others? Then you’re likely to be.
People who believe they can control the outcomes – and subsequently their own life – try harder, persist longer, and have higher-levels of self-control then folk who believe outcomes control them.
The belief that you can achieve something, in many cases, leads to you actually achieving that thing.
This ties into faith: if the past shows us that we can succeed in many different arenas, we will have faith that in the future we will continue to succeed. Therefore we will find it easier to commit to delayed rewards because we truly believe those rewards will come to fruition. And in turn, we will actually have more success in the real world – a true self-fulfilling prophecy.
Why You Should Think The Cup Is Half Full
“Optimists cope more effectively [than pessimists] with stress and are better protected against its adverse effects. They take more steps to protect their health and future well-being, generally stay healthier, [recover quicker from surgery], and are less likely to become depressed.”
Walter Mischel goes through this in great detail and there is definitely information worth reading in this section that I’m not going to traverse because it doesn’t move us any closer to self-control and that’s the intention of the book. Secondly, it takes a great deal of its information from Mindset by Carol Dweck. For a far more comprehensive understanding of how our thoughts and beliefs impact our abilities, check out that book. It comes highly recommended.*
How you identify with your future self has a huge impact on how you live your life. View your current self and your future self as distinct? View your future self almost like a stranger? Then you will not act with the best interests of your future self in mind. Conversely, the more similar you imagine yourself to be to your future self, the more likely you are to consider that self when making decisions.
Those who see a strong connection between their current and future selves are less likely to discount the future, to put off until tomorrow, to eat greasy foods or take drugs. They are more likely to study enough, keep to deadlines, exercise, and sleep early.
Over time, those who perceive a greater overlap between their present self and their future self, accumulate greater net-worth, have healthier, more successful friendships, live longer, and have greater work satisfaction.
One study showed that when people are shown a digital version of their future selves, they indicate that they would save 30% more for retirement. So seeing an image of your future self enhances your identification with that self and makes you more likely to account for him/her when making decisions.
On hearing this, I downloaded a free app that takes a picture of you and creates an image of you in your 60s/70s – big, thick wrinkles and all. I have that image as the wallpaper on my phone. I haven’t noticed any substantial change in how I act, but it does make me stop and think often. It has made me use my phone less, but I need more time to assess its implications.
Interestingly, those who felt more disconnected from their future selves were more likely to behave unethically to get ahead. It may be important to test potential employees and leaders to ensure they feel closely connected to the older version of themselves. Maybe if the folk on Wall Street had vetted for this, we wouldn’t have seen the outrageous string of exploitations that led to the 2008 crash.
Psychological Distancing Controls Cravings
When faced with a craving, try changing what you focus on. Instead of focusing on the appealing, hot aspects of the object of your desire: tasty, smells good, it will feel so good right now; focus on the visual, abstract, cool aspects: it’s black, round, small, will have x,y,z impact on my body and mind if I consume it. From here, change your focus from the present to the future, from ‘now’ to ‘later’.
“When heavy cigarette smokers focused on the long-term consequences of smoking, they significantly reduced their cravings.”
Noteworthy: in order to make the long-term consequences more compelling than the immediate rewards, we must use the cool system to cognitively reappraise the immediate temptations in a way that either neutralises or makes them aversive within the hot system. We must imagine the long-term consequences in a vivid, visceral way that causes the hot system to pay attention.
One of the most powerful and novel ideas from The Marshmallow Test, for me, was the small section on aversive counterconditioning. This psychological gymnastics allows you to take something you have an all-consuming addiction to and transform it into something you find repulsive and would never dream of indulging in.
The example provided in the book shows how Walter Mischel mutates his desire for cigarettes into a repulsion by imagining he was inhaling deeply from a large can filled with old, stale, cigarette butts. “The can had a concentrated nicotine door intense enough to be nauseating.” And subsequently kicks his addiction forever.
It’s an interesting concept and one I want to experiment with in my own life, but what was even more revolutionary for me was he said next:
“I supplemented this step by deliberately reactivating that haunting image of the cancer patient to make the ‘later’ consequences of smoking as hot, salient, and vivid for myself. Perhaps just as important, I made a social contract with my three-year-old thumb-sucking daughter: she agreed to stop sucking her thumb and I vowed to stop sucking my pipe. I also made public commitments with my co-workers and students, contracting myself to quit cigarettes and no longer cadge them.”
Walter Mischel didn’t simply use one technique to deal with his life-long negative habit. Rather, he supplemented with many psychological strategies. This is a profound idea to me. I tend to pick one psychological trick and attempt to hack away at my compulsions with just that.
Then, as soon as it fails to give me the long-term success I’m looking for, I move on to the next trick. Retrospectively, I can see it was foolish to attempt to take down such colossal beasts built up and hardened over many years of battle with my psyche with one tiny little butter knife. Of course, combining a number of psychological techniques to overcome sticky addictions is the only way to success.
Protecting the Hurt Self
Most Psychotherapists focus on having their patients revisit past trauma so that it can be overcome. But research has shown that while some people manage to get better by relieving the past, for most people focusing on negative events from the past causes more anger, more pain, more resentment and makes it that much harder to actually heal.
So steer clear of the ‘and how does that make you feel?’ psychologists and ensure you avoid using such questions when trying to help others deal with their pasts.
So what’s the alternative? Bottle it up? Of course not. The alternative is to think like a fly on the wall viewing the experience from a distance, external, clear, unbiased place. What really went down?
This will help you to stop recounting the concrete details and negative emotions as though you’re relieving the experience, and start actually start reappraising your distress so you can finally get closure.
This is backed by science: those who spontaneously distanced themselves when they reflected on painful events, were more likely to reappraise rather than recount, and felt better and became less stressed – both in the short term and the long term.
“Overall, people who spontaneously self-distanced when thinking about negative experiences in their relationship also used more constructive problem-solving strategies to resolve conflicts than those who did not…. Most entering was that the low-self-distance people coped adaptively in conflicts, as long as their partners did not become negative and hostile toward them. But if their partners did become hostile, they fully reciprocated, sharply escalating the hostility. The combination of low-self-distancing people with highly negative partners became a formula for escalating hostility that was potentially toxic for the relationship’s future.”
In Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) self-distancing is a major tenet. This form of therapy tries to help clients escape from their default perspective of self-immersion by guiding them to realise that their beliefs and perceptions are merely constructions of reality, not absolute, concrete truths. As one of the most effective forms of therapy available, it’s certainly worth exploring if you have any trauma or experiences that require healing or reconciliation.
One way in which CBT stands head and shoulders above most forms of therapy is in its ability to be self-administered. You don’t have to pay hefty fees to get an hour’s access to a therapist once a month. You don’t have to wait helplessly and impatiently between sessions, waiting for the healing that only your therapist can administer. There is no gatekeeper, CBT is the everyman’s therapy. A pen, a piece of paper, an open mind, and a little time are the only things required to start seeing results from this therapy.
Now, don’t jump the gun: I’m not saying CBT makes therapists obsolete. You can lose weight yourself – and many people do – but you will likely do it far quicker and safer with the help of a weight loss coach; furthermore, if you get a great coach they’ll address and resolve the psychological issues that led to the weight gain and thereby ensure the weight doesn’t come back in the future. Sure they cost an arm and a leg, sure you don’t have constant access to them, but coaches are incredibly useful in all areas of life.
This idea that we can do it all ourselves with a few YouTube videos and a spattering of articles is foolish. Maybe we can, but it’s an incredibly inefficient process.
All I’m saying is CBT doesn’t pretend to be this mysterious, magical practise that only masters have any business dealing with. Of course, if you can, find an amazing CBT practitioner and have them guide you through the process of healing expertly.
Noteworthy: there is an interesting little section here that talks about how emotional pain physically hurts. A broken heart really does hurt the heart and in the same way that we use painkillers to ease the discomfort of a headache or a sore back, we can also use painkillers to ease the discomfort of heartbreak or any other emotional pain.
One study showed that volunteers taking painkillers daily reported a significant reduction in daily hurt feelings when compared to the placebo which showed no change.
The Psychological Immune System
“The psychological immune system finds ways for us to avoid hating ourselves for bad outcomes and credit ourselves for the good ones. It lets us attribute the bad outcomes to everything from the government, an incompetent underling, or a jealous colleague, to a moment of bad luck or some other condition outside of our control.” Simply put, we blame everyone and everything for our mistakes if at all possible and mistake serendipity for ability/intelligence/diligence constantly. Wow!
This psychological immune system preserves our sense of being upstanding, successful citizens. “It allows us to see ourselves as having more positive and less negative qualities than most of our peers.”
One study showed that between 67 and 96 percent of people rate themselves as better than their peers across 21 qualities. I don’t know about you, but I’ve come across a whole lot of selfish, obsessive, awkward, moronic deadbeats. I mean, I’m certainly not one – absolutely not – but clearly some of you are inflating your self-image to cartoonish proportions, please stop that.
Of course, we cannot all be above average. So is this reality-bending hurting us?
Well, in some ways it is. The psychological immune system causes us to believe that our thoughts and ideas are incredibly perceptive, cemented firmly in truth, just, while also making us believe that our opposition’s thoughts are foolish and just downright wrong. This stops us from getting to the truth as our ego plays tricks on us and denies us the possibility that we could be wrong. Best case scenario, it stops us from empathising with those who disagree with us. Worst case, it causes civil wars.
However, “high self-enhancers, the people who get higher self-affirming scores when they compare themselves with peers, in fact, have lower chronic biological stress levels,” as well as improved mood, greater physical energy, and healthier immune system. “They are better able to attenuate the hot system when reacting to threats because their calming parasympathetic activity increases.”
So as long as positive illusions do not become extreme distortions of reality, they actually enhance physiological and neuroendocrine functioning, while lowering stress levels. Conversely, realists who perceive themselves more accurately experience lower self-esteem and more depression, and they are generally less physically and mentally healthy.
My notes: In order to maintain high self-esteem, it’s important to view yourself with rose-tinted glasses. To be happy you have to be at least a little delusional. This is merely self-preservation, so don’t try and unroot it.
However, this ego-protection creeps causes us to tangle up our beliefs about the outside world with our representation of ourselves. It causes us to think that our views on abortion or gay rights or sex or money or whatever else are right, whilst simultaneously causing us to believe everyone with an opposing viewpoint is categorically wrong, and therefore foolish.
So we need to, as best we can, disentangle our beliefs of the outside world from our beliefs of ourselves. That way we can maintain our healthy, positive self-image whilst realising we are fallible, imperfect creatures that are often wrong.
I posit that the best way to do this is to tell yourself daily that you might be wrong. Remind yourself daily that there are people just as smart as you – and much smarter! – who know more than you on the subjects you hold dear, and fundamentally disagree with you. Also, remind yourself that most people have good intentions.
We all think that if things were only done our way, the world would be a healthier, happier place. When you remind yourself that we’re all starting from the same place, that we all think that our way is the way to redemption, salvation, peace, and contentment, then you hold on a little less tightly to your ideologies. Your primary care becomes real, tangible results, not posturing. You no longer need your thinking to be the thing that causes positive change. You readily relinquish one set of beliefs for another if you see it has more efficacy. You become humble and selfless.
Must read: Heretics by Will Storr is one of my top 10 favourite books. An honest, open look at the delusional human mind and how shocking it is to realise that almost no one leaves room for the possibility that they could be wrong about some things. Told in first-person journalistic musings and journeys. Wonderfully written, extremely funny and vulnerable, and provides a method for becoming less attached to your ideologies. Read it!
Want to Achieve? Be Happy!
How we respond to failure is decided by our mood, our past experiences, and our mindset. Let’s break those three factors down:
- Mood: happy people have a resilience to failure. They’re willing to persevere when things get tough and they’re more likely to call on past positive experiences to steady them through the failures. Whereas sad people quickly lower their perception of their ability based on failures – even if they have succeeded many times in the past. And they start to believe they’re likely to fail in the future.
- Past Experiences: those with a bank of positive past experiences will be more confident in their ability to succeed and will be more likely to push past failure. They know they’ve done it before and can do it again.
- Mindset: In Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset, you’re taught about the 2 mindsets people have – growth or fixed. An individual with a growth mindset will think ability is learned, not innate. He/she will think that with focus and attention they can become competent at pretty much anything. If they succeed they chalk it to the work they put in. If they fail they blame it on a lack of preparation and they resolve to work harder, work smarter so that they can up their chance of success next time. They are confident that eventually they will succeed, it’s just a matter of time, and its fully within their control.
Someone with fixed mindset will believe that their abilities are fixed and no amount of effort will change that. Fail a math test? ‘I must be bad at math.’ Don’t make the football team? ‘I’m not sporty.’ Fixed mindset makes people respond poorly to failure as it makes them reevaluate their innate abilities. If they are failing, they mustn’t be good enough and as their abilities are fixed they can do nothing to change them. Might as well give up.
Read Mindset, it’s a great book. The Marshmallow Test delves into the basics but it’s worth exploring it more deeply.
Contextualized Self Control
We believe that self-control in one area means self-control in all areas. We think the athlete who gets up at 4am and pushes his body and mind to the limit every day and has a restricted diet has the self-control to avoid cheating or committing crimes or addictions. But we are wrong. Someone’s self-control in one area does not give us any clue as to their self-control in another area. Look at Tiger Woods or Bill Clinton for examples of this.
Self-control is context driven. “To be able to delay gratification and exert self-control is an ability, a set of cognitive skills that, like any ability, can be used or not used depending primarily on the motivation to use it.”
“How we perceive the situation and the probable consequences, our motivation and goals, and the intensity of the temptation,” are all important. The ability remains stable but the desire to use it fluctuates dependant on the object of our desire.
“The aggressive child at home may be less aggressive than most when in school; the woman exceptionally hostile when rejected in love may be unusually tolerant about criticism of her work.; the patient who sweats with anxiety in the dentist’s office may be cool and courageous when scaling a sheer face of a mountain.”
We make assumptions based on the smallest slice of behaviour and these assumptions are almost always incorrect.
My notes: If you’re someone who has Spartanic self-control in many areas but find yourself cheating on your spouse, or can see your BMI outpacing your ageing, what’s to be done?
You have to reassess your motivations in the area you’re falling short. Without question, you are in some way excusing or justifying that action or inaction. You may want to be faithful, but you like the thrill of the chase more. You may want to lose weight but you want the burger more.
Enhance the motivation, build the self-control. You can use aversive counterconditioning to make the vice repulsive but be careful with this if it could really harm you or others – in the case of cheating or cocaine.
The other thing you can do is grab a pen and paper and write down all the ways in which your current behaviour is going to ruin your life if you continue to indulge. Make this as compelling, vivid, and, bleak as possible. Then write down all the ways in which kicking the current habit will give you a vastly better life. Create an inspiring, beautiful future that you want to move toward.
With religion being shoved off centre stage by individualism, it becomes important to build up your own rulebook of ethics. What do you consider right and what do you consider wrong? What virtues do you want to possess? Consider this before the fact and then you will lean on your ethics. Fail to, and you will revert to what feels best in the moment, which often leads to stupid decisions being made.
If we want to change an aspect of ourselves then learning from someone who perfectly exemplifies that behaviour or state is an incredibly effective shortcut. Terrified of dogs? Spend time with someone who loves dogs and watch how they approach and play with dogs. Then over time you’ll mirror their behaviours through osmosis and become more comfortable around dogs – motion creates emotion.
Interestingly, in one study Walter Mischel had children take individual sessions with a young woman (the model). “The woman would show the children a bowling game that kept track of scores for each trial. Within arms reach was a large bowl full of tokens that the child and the model could use to reward themselves for their performance. They were told that the chips were worth valuable prizes at the end, and the more chips, the better the prize.”
“We created three different scenarios for how the model rewarded her own performance and how she guided the child to evaluate and reward their own performance.”
Those scenarios were:
1) “High standards”: equally stringent with herself and with the child. She took tokens only when she got a perfect score. And she would justify herself: “That’s a good score; that deserves a chip.”
When her score wasn’t perfect she’d criticise herself: “That’s not a very good score; that doesn’t deserve a chip.”
2) “High standards for model, easy on child”: model rewarded child for lower scores than she rewarded herself.
3) “Easy on model, high standards for child”: lenient with herself, but far more stringent with child.
“After the children participated in one of these conditions, we unobtrusively observed their spontaneous self-reward behaviour when they bowled alone in the post-test. Children adopted the most stringent standards for self-reward when they had learned from a tough-on-herself model who was equally tough on them. This model encouraged them to reward themselves only for top scores. When the modelled and imposed standards were consistent, children adopted those standards without a single deviation in the model’s absence. The research also showed that these effects were especially strong when children believed that the model was powerful.”
“Children who were encouraged to be lenient with themselves remained that way…when left alone.”
“In the group of children who were held to a stringent standard during the training but had learned from a model who was lenient on herself, half retained the more stringent standards, and half used the more liberal standards they had observed.”
This was extremely powerful for me. We now have scientific evidence that you have to lead first in business, relationships, friendships, life. Want your employees to work harder? Than work harder yourself and then hold them to higher standards. Want your partner to lose weight and exercise more? Then get off your lazy ass and do some work yourself.
This section is in complete opposition to the ideas found in books like Willpower: Rediscovering Our Greatest Strength by John Tierney and Roy Baumeister. (This is one of my favourite books). Concisely put, the book posits that willpower is finite and every single decision we make, every decision we fail to make, all the impulses and addiction we attempt to resist, every time we try to control our emotions we use up willpower.
Willpower is heavily dependant on blood glucose levels as the pre-frontal cortex runs on the stuff and the pre-frontal cortex is what regulates mood, does the planning, controls impulses etc. So no glucose equals beddy-bye-byes to the pre-frontal cortex and a whole slew of poor decisions and emotional outbreaks. It provides many easily implementable techniques to develop greater willpower. Delightful read.
Anyway, Walter Mischel disagrees.
“As the demands for effortful self-control and tedious work escalated, but the incentives did not the students’ attention and motivation shifted. Rather than having their willpower depleted, they probably became fed up, feeling that they had complied sufficiently with the experimenter’s demands to do a boring tasks. In one task for example, after spending five minutes crossing out every “e” in a typewritten text, students then had to not cross out an “e” if it was followed by a vowel. And when people are given strong incentives to persist even on tasks like that, they do continue longer. As motivation to exert self-control increases, effort continues. With no increase n motivation, it does not. In this interpretation, the reduction in self-control is not due to a loss in resources: it reflects, instead, changes in motivation and attention.”
“When in love, we can go from experiencing an exhausting day or week or month to running eagerly to wherever our beloved is. For some people, feelings of fatigue become the cues not for turning on the television but for jogging to the gym.”
“When people are led to think that effortful tasks will invigorate rather than drain them, they improve their performance on a later task.” And the opposite holds true: if you think it’ll drain you, it’ll drain you. This ties in with the ideas outlined in Mindset. Do you think your willpower levels are fixed and finite or do you think there is almost no limit to the potential levels of willpower you can reach? Your mind creates your environment to a large extent.
“Students who had an implicit theory of willpower as a non-limited resource fared much better during the high-stress exam period than those with a limited-resource theory, who reported eating more unhealthy food, procrastinating more, and ineffectively regulating while trying to prepare for their tests.”
I would say neither Willpower nor The Marshmallow Test are completely correct. Instead, the truth, in my eyes, seems to lie somewhere in between. The truth is nuanced here as it almost always is.
Willpower is finite. There is not question about that. Try killing yourself by holding your breath. I’ll wait. Finished? Still alive? Still reading this? Thought so. We only have so much willpower, we only have so much energy. We must rest. And if we do not fuel our brain, it will shut up shop regardless of our mindset.
That being said, most of us probably have a lot more to give, and if we stop excusing our poor behaviours by touting dried up willpower reserves, we will almost certainly become a great deal more productive.
Like I said at the start, there is plenty of valuable material in there I haven’t used as it was less directed to self-control.
Definitely check out the book if you want a more comprehensive guide, or if you have interest in how these things can be used in parenting, education, and public policy. In my opinion, public policy should be left out of pop-psychology books. The everyman has no interest in that. Nor does he have an interest in education – at the very least, most of us have no way to change the education system even if we wanted to.
Other than that, it’s a great book!
If you’ve found value in this, please share it with your network. And leave a comment below letting me know what you’re going to go away and implement in your own life to master your self-control.
Want other book reviews? You may be interested in my review of Hooked By Nir Eyal. It’s all about how to build habit-forming products.