The marshmallow experiment shouldn't need an introduction. In the early 1960s, a group of preschoolers at Stanford University's Bing Nursery School participated in a study that would change how psychologists think about willpower. Preschoolers were led to a room where researchers gave them a choice between one reward (a marshmallow) that they could enjoy immediately, and a larger reward (two marshmallows!) if they abstained from eating the first marshmallow for 20 minutes. Did the preschoolers hold out for double the prize?
The first thing researchers noticed was that the kids who caved focused on their internal struggle. They fought the urge, cognitive load increased, and willpower plummeted. It was a losing battle from the start. The kids who resisted got creative. Instead of fighting the urge, they stood in the corner, covered their eyes, or pretended that the marshmallow was a cloud.
Over the subsequent decades, an undeniable trend emerged. The kids who successfully waited for the second marshmallow were scoring better in just about every aspect of life. They performed better on the SAT. They were healthier, led richer social lives, and pursued goals more effectively. If the Marshmallow Test is a window into human nature, it shows that willpower is not just about delaying gratification or resisting temptation. It's the art of distraction.
What you might not know about the Marshmallow Test is that its creator, legendary psychologist Walter Mischel, struggled with self-control his whole life. He smoked three packs a day for years. He sometimes called his students in the middle of the night to ask how a data analysis was going. He still hates waiting in lines. As Maria Konnikova writes in a short profile of Mischel in the New Yorker, "even if you're a self-control guru, sometimes there are hot spots that never quite cool."
If Mischel struggles with willpower, is there any hope for the rest of us?
Luckily, Mischel divulges his secrets in his new book The Marshmallow Test. He emphasizes that while the "big five" personality traits are real, measurable, and influenced by genetics, human behavior is highly sensitive to context. We're not nearly consistent across different kinds of situations as we'd like to think. Even ingrained traits like conscientiousness or agreeableness are context-dependent.
In the mid-1980s, Mischel began a research project at Wediko Children's Services, a summer residential treatment camp in New England for kids aged 7 to 17 with serious social adjustment problems, particularly issues with aggression and self-control. Mischel diligently studied the situations where the kids lashed out or were composed, carefully keeping track of the circumstances that correlated with different behaviors. Some kids reacted negatively when they were teased by a peer. Some reacted positively when they received praise from a consoler. Everyone was different, but their behavior, Mischel found, correlated with distinct situations.
His finding confirmed that personality is, to a large degree, content-dependent. But there was more to it than that. Mischel developed the "If-Then signatures of personality." Everyone has different hot spots, and we should use our "cool system" to map our hot spots in order to navigate around them. In a follow-up study Mischel found that Wediko students who learned about "cooling strategies" were less physically and verbally aggressive--they also performed better on a version of the Marshmallow Test.
A similar source of tension is the gap between our present and future self. The dismal success rate of New Year's resolutions is just one illustration of this flaw. From gym memberships to dieting to 401 Ks, we're just not that good at sticking to long-term plans. Hal Hershfield, then a professor at New York University, found that when we think about different people and our future self, the same part of the brain lights up. On an fMRI scan--a crude image, to be sure--the future self looks like another person.
We can manipulate this relationship to our advantage. In one study Hershfield had participants look at digitized versions of themselves as older people. After getting a glimpse of their future self, participants in a follow up questionnaire indicated that they were more willing to invest in their future self. We're capable of accomplishing long-term goals set in the present--we just need to be reminded, visually, who those goals benefit.
Eventually, Mischel quit smoking. In the late nineteen-sixties, he saw a man with metastasized lung cancer at Stanford medical school. The patient's chest was exposed, his head was shaved, and little green "x" marks indicated points where radiation would go. It was a vivid image. And from that point on, Mischel imagined the dying patient each time he wanted a cigarette. "I changed the objective value of the cigarette. It went from something I craved to something disgusting." He hasn't had a smoke since, Konnikova reports.
Ever since Adam and Eve bit from the apple and Ulysses tied himself to the mast, humans have struggled with self-control. Thanks to Mischel, decades of research in psychology have empirically revealed why. Yet Ulysses had the right idea all along. Instead of fighting the urge to resist, we should avoid the fight altogether. Like those preschoolers who pictured a cloud in place of a marshmallow, the secret to willpower might not be grit, but imagination.