Do you hate yourself because you think you have no willpower? Are you envious of people you know who seem to be so much better at avoiding temptations and focusing on their long-term goals? Both sentiments may be unwarranted. Research suggests that having or not having willpower is as much the result of what you've experienced in life as anything else.

In the now-famous marshmallow test at Stanford, small children were left alone in a room with a prominently displayed marshmallow (or other treat) and no distractions. They were told they could eat the marshmallow if they wanted, but if they waited for the researcher to return 15 minutes later they would be rewarded with a second marshmallow. Fifteen minutes is a long time for a small child to sit alone staring at a yummy treat, and sooner or later most of them succumbed to temptation. But some waited much longer than others. The researchers kept track of the children into adulthood, and sure enough, the longer a child waited to eat the marshmallow, the greater his or her chances of success in school, and later on in a career.

The experiment seemed to prove something that we all already know. The greater your ability to delay gratification in pursuit of a desirable goal, the more willpower you have and the more successful you will be. Only it turned out there was much more to it than that. The original marshmallow test was conducted on 90 children, all of whom were enrolled in a preschool on the Stanford campus. In 2018, researchers at NYU, sensing there might be other factors involved, corrected for that small, homogenous sample by performing the marshmallow test on 900 children from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Some of their parents had completed higher education; others hadn't. Sure enough, the rich kids did much better at the marshmallow test. 

This, of course, throws the whole validity of the original test into question. Willpower may or may not help you toward future success, but coming from a home with plenty of money and well-educated parents definitely does. As my colleague Jeff Haden put it, the only thing we know for sure is that the marshmallow test is extremely good at identifying rich kids

The second marshmallow test study at NYU, though, still leaves one big question unanswered. It's easy to see why children who come from wealthier homes with more highly educated parents might be more successful in life. They have more money for schooling and access to extra educational opportunities such as tutoring or specialized camp. They also have more well-educated and successful role models and contacts and less need to work for money while attending school. But why are rich kids--contrary to their image in popular culture--better at delaying gratification than everyone else?

What does experience teach us?

Some fascinating research from a few years ago seems to have found the answer. A group of researchers at the University of Rochester had the same hunch as the later NYU researchers that the Stanford marshmallow test wasn't telling the whole story, and that the children's home lives might be affecting their apparent ability, or inability, to delay gratification. 

They reasoned that the supposed inability to wait for the second marshmallow was not actually a failure of willpower but a rational decision based on each child's expectations. To illustrate the point and explain its relationship to socio-economic status, the researchers described two hypothetical children at opposite ends of the wealth spectrum:

"Consider the mindset of a 4-year-old living in a crowded shelter, surrounded by older children with little adult supervision. For a child accustomed to stolen possessions and broken promises, the only guaranteed treats are the ones you have already swallowed. At the other extreme, consider the mindset of an only child in a stable home whose parents reliably promise and deliver small motivational treats for good behavior. From this child's perspective, the rare injustice of a stolen object or broken promise may be so startlingly unfamiliar that it prompts an outburst of tears."

In other words, were children in the marshmallow experiment making a reasoned decision to eat the first marshmallow because they believed they would never receive a second one, no matter what they did? To answer this question, the Rochester team devised an elaborate experiment. They did it with only 28 children, which some might argue is too small a sample size to be significant. But I believe the results still tell us a lot.

The team set out to give each of the children the idea that the researchers' promises were either reliable or unreliable. To do this, they created two scenarios that roughly mirrored the marshmallow experiment. The children were taken to an art room, where they were presented with a closed jar full of old, worn down crayons. The researcher then gave them the choice to either open the jar and use the old crayons or wait a few minutes for the researcher to bring some newer ones. The researcher then left the room. 

They didn't actually want the children to get busy with the old crayons--they wanted all of them to hope for the new ones. So they closed the jar too tight for a small child to open without help. The researcher returned two and a half minutes later. In half the cases, they brought with them a large box of brand-new crayons. In the other half, they brought nothing, apologized, and said there were no more new crayons. Then they helped the children open the jar of old ones. To reinforce the idea, after the children had colored for a while, the researcher pulled out a single, small sticker in a plastic envelope. Again, they told the children they could either use that one sticker right away, or wait a few minutes for the researcher to come back with some better ones. Once again, unbeknownst to the children, the envelope with the sticker inside was almost impossible to open--it had been sealed with Super Glue. Once again, the researchers either returned with an assortment of highly desirable stickers, or with the news that the stickers were all gone.

At this point, all the children had twice experienced the researcher either keeping a promise or breaking it, so that half of them were primed to believe the researchers would likely keep their word, and half were primed to believe the researchers would likely break their word. The children were then presented with the classic marshmallow test--left alone with a single marshmallow and the promise of another if they could refrain from eating it for 15 minutes. To avoid confirmation bias, "blind" coders who knew nothing about the experiment reviewed videos of the children and noted the time at which each of them first bit or licked the marshmallow.

The differences were striking. Of the 14 children who'd experienced the researchers as unreliable, only one waited the whole 15 minutes for the second marshmallow. But of the 14 who'd been taught that the researchers were reliable, nine waited for the second marshmallow. Among those who didn't make it to 15 minutes, there was still a wide variance. Those who'd learned that the researchers were unreliable waited just over 3 minutes, on average, before eating the marshmallow. Those who'd learned that the researchers were reliable waited just over 12 minutes. (At the end of the experiment, all the children got three additional marshmallows no matter what they'd done.)

Stop blaming yourself.

What does all this mean to you and your struggles with self-discipline? Well, for starters, you can stop criticizing yourself for your lack of willpower. And if you're congratulating yourself for your excellent willpower, you should probably stop that too. In both cases, it may have as much to do with the experiences you've had as it does with your actual efforts. 

Reading about this research made me think about my attempts to get my husband Bill to save money early in our relationship. When he received a small windfall, I tried to get him to invest it for the future. I started a joint savings account and tried to get him to contribute. I failed at both, which really isn't surprising. He grew up in a blue collar family with three other siblings where money was perpetually tight. He learned to spend it when he had it because it might not be there later on. I was raised in comfortable circumstances and my father made a habit of giving me savings bonds on my birthday, which he would then take back and deposit in the bank for me. I was told that money was mine and encouraged to watch it grow.

The thing is, it seems to me that our ability to delay gratification and exert willpower is different in different areas of our lives. I'm very good at it, for example, when it comes to work or academics, and not so good at it when it comes to my eating habits. Bill may not have been great at saving money, but he was really good at the kind of self-discipline and delayed gratification required to keep a relationship working over the long term. For me, when it came to the work of building a relationship, there was a steep learning curve. Again, experience may be the reason. His parents said "till death do us part" and meant it. My parents split up when I was 11 and my father was the third of my mother's four husbands. I believe my parents loved each other, but so far as I could see, they didn't do the necessary work to keep a relationship alive over the long term. I'm not sure if they knew how, but I know it wasn't something I learned. 

Bill did know how. Over time I learned from him, just as he learned from me to better manage his finances. It took time because both of us, I think, needed not just the knowledge but to build up some new experiences. It was the only way to know that our efforts today really would pay off in the future.

That's the good news about willpower and delayed gratification. Once you stop blaming yourself for your failures, once you understand that your past experiences help shape your present-day self-discipline, you can do something about it. If the things that happened to you as a child make it hard to focus on long-term goals, you can remind yourself that you're no longer a child and that those old lessons may not apply any more. Then, as Bill and I did for each other, you can set about creating new experiences that will lead you in a better direction. You could wind up discovering that you have much more willpower than you ever thought.

Published on: Nov 29, 2019
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