The Power Of Self-Control

In 1968 Stanford psychology professor Walter Mischel performed a series of tests on four-year-old’s referred to as The Marshmallow Experiment. Mischel would give a child a single puffy white marshmallow, then leave him or her alone in the room with it. Before he departed, he’d make each kid a delicious offer: if they wanted to, they could eat the marshmallow right away — but if they waited for him to return, they’d be rewarded with a second marshmallow.

Children who are able to pass the marshmallow test enjoy greater success as adults.

Most of the children struggled to resist the treat and held out for an average of less than three minutes. A few kids gobbled up the marshmallow right away. Other children would stare directly at the marshmallow, control their appetites for a while but eventually cave in. About thirty per cent of the children, however, were able to successfully delay gratification until the researcher returned, some fifteen minutes later. These kids wrestled with temptation but found a way to resist.

Thirteen years later Mischel did follow-up research that found dramatic differences between the two groups. He noticed that low delayers, the children who gobbled up the marshmallow quickly, seemed more likely to have behavioral problems, both in school and at home. They got lower S.A.T. scores. They struggled in stressful situations, often had trouble paying attention, and found it difficult to maintain friendships. The child who could wait fifteen minutes 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. Mischel continued tracking these groups into their late thirties and found that, as adults, the gobblers had more weight problems and were more likely to have had drug problems too.

Mischel, who is now a professor at Columbia, and a team of collaborators began asking the original subjects of the test to travel to Stanford for a few days of experiments in an fMRI machine. The scientists are hoping to identify the particular brain regions that allow some people to delay gratification and control their temper. They’re also conducting a variety of genetic tests, as they search for the hereditary characteristics that influence the ability to wait for a second marshmallow.

If Mischel and his team succeed, they will have outlined the neural circuitry of self-control. For decades, psychologists have focused on raw intelligence as the most important variable when it comes to predicting success in life. Mischel argues that intelligence is largely at the mercy of self-control: even the smartest kids still need to do their homework. “What we’re really measuring with the marshmallows isn’t will power or self-control,” Mischel says. “It’s much more important than that. This task forces kids to find a way to make the situation work for them. They want the second marshmallow, but how can they get it? We can’t control the world, but we can control how we think about it.”

Mischel’s study points to the need to teach our children self-control, to resist the notion that all wants must be immediately satiated. According to Mischel, the daily rituals and activities that go on in the home can be a training ground where we teach our children how to think so they can outsmart desire. Simple things – not snacking before dinner, saving up allowance, not opening gifts until Christmas morning – are actually important excises in cognitive training that equip children to for future successes in life.

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