Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the idea of will power, and exploring it a bit more. Often, when I read people talking about weight loss, there’s always that small subject that swears up and down that fat people just don’t “use” their will power.
I can tell you straight up and down, that – for me, of course – it wasn’t a matter of not “using” will power, it was a matter of simply not having any. That was something I had to develop on my own. There wasn’t some hidden reservoir in my brain that I simply wasn’t “tapping into” yet. I had no idea how to turn down things that brought me immediate and immense pleasure.
Enter: The Marshmallow Study.
An infamous study involving a group of children’s ability to decide sensibly between eating one marshmallow now or being given two marshmallows later, we are granted a closer look at the way concepts like will power affect (or, as it were, don’t affect) our lives.
It’s a lot of information, but it’s very important.
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.
Although Carolyn has no direct memory of the experiment, and the scientists would not release any information about the subjects, she strongly suspects that she was able to delay gratification. “I’ve always been really good at waiting,” Carolyn told me. “If you give me a challenge or a task, then I’m going to find a way to do it, even if it means not eating my favorite food.” Her mother, Karen Sortino, is still more certain: “Even as a young kid, Carolyn was very patient. I’m sure she would have waited.” But her brother Craig, who also took part in the experiment, displayed less fortitude. Craig, a year older than Carolyn, still remembers the torment of trying to wait. “At a certain point, it must have occurred to me that I was all by myself,” he recalls. “And so I just started taking all the candy.” According to Craig, he was also tested with little plastic toys—he could have a second one if he held out—and he broke into the desk, where he figured there would be additional toys. “I took everything I could,” he says. “I cleaned them out. After that, I noticed the teachers encouraged me to not go into the experiment room anymore.”
Footage of these experiments, which were conducted over several years, is poignant, as the kids struggle to delay gratification for just a little bit longer. Some cover their eyes with their hands or turn around so that they can’t see the tray. Others start kicking the desk, or tug on their pigtails, or stroke the marshmallow as if it were a tiny stuffed animal. One child, a boy with neatly parted hair, looks carefully around the room to make sure that nobody can see him. Then he picks up an Oreo, delicately twists it apart, and licks off the white cream filling before returning the cookie to the tray, a satisfied look on his face.
Most of the children were like Craig. They struggled to resist the treat and held out for an average of less than three minutes. “A few kids ate the marshmallow right away,” Walter Mischel, the Stanford professor of psychology in charge of the experiment, remembers. “They didn’t even bother ringing the bell. Other kids would stare directly at the marshmallow and then ring the bell thirty seconds later.” About thirty per cent of the children, however, were like Carolyn. They successfully delayed gratification until the researcher returned, some fifteen minutes later. These kids wrestled with temptation but found a way to resist.
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.”
But occasionally Mischel would ask his three daughters, all of whom attended the Bing, about their friends from nursery school. “It was really just idle dinnertime conversation,” he says. “I’d ask them, ‘How’s Jane? How’s Eric? How are they doing in school?’ ” Mischel began to notice a link between the children’s academic performance as teen-agers and their ability to wait for the second marshmallow. He asked his daughters to assess their friends academically on a scale of zero to five. Comparing these ratings with the original data set, he saw a correlation. “That’s when I realized I had to do this seriously,” he says. Starting in 1981, Mischel sent out a questionnaire to all the reachable parents, teachers, and academic advisers of the six hundred and fifty-three subjects who had participated in the marshmallow task, who were by then in high school. He asked about every trait he could think of, from their capacity to plan and think ahead to their ability to “cope well with problems” and get along with their peers. He also requested their S.A.T. scores.
Once Mischel began analyzing the results, he noticed that low delayers, the children who rang the bell 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.
Carolyn Weisz is a textbook example of a high delayer. She attended Stanford as an undergraduate, and got her Ph.D. in social psychology at Princeton. She’s now an associate psychology professor at the University of Puget Sound. Craig, meanwhile, moved to Los Angeles and has spent his career doing “all kinds of things” in the entertainment industry, mostly in production. He’s currently helping to write and produce a film. “Sure, I wish I had been a more patient person,” Craig says. “Looking back, there are definitely moments when it would have helped me make better career choices and stuff.”
Mischel and his colleagues continued to track the subjects into their late thirties—Ozlem Ayduk, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, found that low-delaying adults have a significantly higher body-mass index and are more likely to have had problems with drugs—but it was frustrating to have to rely on self-reports. “There’s often a gap between what people are willing to tell you and how they behave in the real world,” he explains.
To set this up properly, it’s this simple: there are reasons to believe that concepts like self-control play a huge part in multiple areas of our lives, not just our weight. But, wait — there’s more:
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 adults, this skill is often referred to as metacognition, or thinking about thinking, and it’s what allows people to outsmart their shortcomings. (When Odysseus had himself tied to the ship’s mast, he was using some of the skills of metacognition: knowing he wouldn’t be able to resist the Sirens’ song, he made it impossible to give in.) Mischel’s large data set from various studies allowed him to see that children with a more accurate understanding of the workings of self-control were better able to delay gratification. “What’s interesting about four-year-olds is that they’re just figuring out the rules of thinking,” Mischel says. “The kids who couldn’t delay would often have the rules backwards. They would think that the best way to resist the marshmallow is to stare right at it, to keep a close eye on the goal. But that’s a terrible idea. If you do that, you’re going to ring the bell before I leave the room.”
According to Mischel, this view of will power also helps explain why the marshmallow task is such a powerfully predictive test. “If you can deal with hot emotions, then you can study for the S.A.T. instead of watching television,” Mischel says. “And you can save more money for retirement. It’s not just about marshmallows.”
Subsequent work by Mischel and his colleagues found that these differences were observable in subjects as young as nineteen months. Looking at how toddlers responded when briefly separated from their mothers, they found that some immediately burst into tears, or clung to the door, but others were able to overcome their anxiety by distracting themselves, often by playing with toys. When the scientists set the same children the marshmallow task at the age of five, they found that the kids who had cried also struggled to resist the tempting treat.
The early appearance of the ability to delay suggests that it has a genetic origin, an example of personality at its most predetermined. Mischel resists such an easy conclusion. “In general, trying to separate nature and nurture makes about as much sense as trying to separate personality and situation,” he says. “The two influences are completely interrelated.” For instance, when Mischel gave delay-of-gratification tasks to children from low-income families in the Bronx, he noticed that their ability to delay was below average, at least compared with that of children in Palo Alto. “When you grow up poor, you might not practice delay as much,” he says. “And if you don’t practice then you’ll never figure out how to distract yourself. You won’t develop the best delay strategies, and those strategies won’t become second nature.” In other words, people learn how to use their mind just as they learn how to use a computer: through trial and error.
But Mischel has found a shortcut. When he and his colleagues taught children a simple set of mental tricks—such as pretending that the candy is only a picture, surrounded by an imaginary frame—he dramatically improved their self-control. The kids who hadn’t been able to wait sixty seconds could now wait fifteen minutes. “All I’ve done is given them some tips from their mental user manual,” Mischel says. “Once you realize that will power is just a matter of learning how to control your attention and thoughts, you can really begin to increase it.”
Even though I’ve always said that there are a multitude of reasons why the poor are disadvantaged when it comes to preserving their health, I never even considered this.
This also furthers my personal belief that… ahh, never mind. I’ll just wait.
The article goes on, though:
Operating on the premise that the ability to delay eating the marshmallow had depended on a child’s ability to banish thoughts of it, they decided on a series of tasks that measure the ability of subjects to control the contents of working memory—the relatively limited amount of information we’re able to consciously consider at any given moment. According to Jonides, this is how self-control “cashes out” in the real world: as an ability to direct the spotlight of attention so that our decisions aren’t determined by the wrong thoughts.
Last summer, the scientists chose fifty-five subjects, equally split between high delayers and low delayers, and sent each one a laptop computer loaded with working-memory experiments. Two of the experiments were of particular interest. The first is a straightforward exercise known as the “suppression task.” Subjects are given four random words, two printed in blue and two in red. After reading the words, they’re told to forget the blue words and remember the red words. Then the scientists provide a stream of “probe words” and ask the subjects whether the probes are the words they were asked to remember. Though the task doesn’t seem to involve delayed gratification, it tests the same basic mechanism. Interestingly, the scientists found that high delayers were significantly better at the suppression task: they were less likely to think that a word they’d been asked to forget was something they should remember.
In the second, known as the Go/No Go task, subjects are flashed a set of faces with various expressions. At first, they are told to press the space bar whenever they see a smile. This takes little effort, since smiling faces automatically trigger what’s known as “approach behavior.” After a few minutes, however, subjects are told to press the space bar when they see frowning faces. They are now being forced to act against an impulse. Results show that high delayers are more successful at not pressing the button in response to a smiling face.
When I first started talking to the scientists about these tasks last summer, they were clearly worried that they wouldn’t find any behavioral differences between high and low delayers. It wasn’t until early January that they had enough data to begin their analysis (not surprisingly, it took much longer to get the laptops back from the low delayers), but it soon became obvious that there were provocative differences between the two groups. A graph of the data shows that as the delay time of the four-year-olds decreases, the number of mistakes made by the adults sharply rises.
The big remaining question for the scientists is whether these behavioral differences are detectable in an fMRI machine. Although the scanning has just begun—Jonides and his team are still working out the kinks—the scientists sound confident. “These tasks have been studied so many times that we pretty much know where to look and what we’re going to find,” Jonides says. He rattles off a short list of relevant brain regions, which his lab has already identified as being responsible for working-memory exercises. For the most part, the regions are in the frontal cortex—the overhang of brain behind the eyes—and include the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the anterior prefrontal cortex, the anterior cingulate, and the right and left inferior frontal gyri. While these cortical folds have long been associated with self-control, they’re also essential for working memory and directed attention. According to the scientists, that’s not an accident. “These are powerful instincts telling us to reach for the marshmallow or press the space bar,” Jonides says. “The only way to defeat them is to avoid them, and that means paying attention to something else. We call that will power, but it’s got nothing to do with the will.”
And, finally, to drive it on home:
Angela Lee Duckworth, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, is leading the program. She first grew interested in the subject after working as a high-school math teacher. “For the most part, it was an incredibly frustrating experience,” she says. “I gradually became convinced that trying to teach a teen-ager algebra when they don’t have self-control is a pretty futile exercise.” And so, at the age of thirty-two, Duckworth decided to become a psychologist. One of her main research projects looked at the relationship between self-control and grade-point average. She found that the ability to delay gratification—eighth graders were given a choice between a dollar right away or two dollars the following week—was a far better predictor of academic performance than I.Q. She said that her study shows that “intelligence is really important, but it’s still not as important as self-control.”
Last year, Duckworth and Mischel were approached by David Levin, the co-founder of KIPP, an organization of sixty-six public charter schools across the country. KIPP schools are known for their long workday—students are in class from 7:25 A.M. to 5 P.M.—and for dramatic improvement of inner-city students’ test scores. (More than eighty per cent of eighth graders at the KIPP academy in the South Bronx scored at or above grade level in reading and math, which was nearly twice the New York City average.) “The core feature of the KIPP approach is that character matters for success,” Levin says. “Educators like to talk about character skills when kids are in kindergarten—we send young kids home with a report card about ‘working well with others’ or ‘not talking out of turn.’ But then, just when these skills start to matter, we stop trying to improve them. We just throw up our hands and complain.”
Self-control is one of the fundamental “character strengths” emphasized by KIPP—the KIPP academy in Philadelphia, for instance, gives its students a shirt emblazoned with the slogan “Don’t Eat the Marshmallow.” Levin, however, remained unsure about how well the program was working—“We know how to teach math skills, but it’s harder to measure character strengths,” he says—so he contacted Duckworth and Mischel, promising them unfettered access to KIPP students. Levin also helped bring together additional schools willing to take part in the experiment, including Riverdale Country School, a private school in the Bronx; the Evergreen School for gifted children, in Shoreline, Washington; and the Mastery Charter Schools, in Philadelphia.
For the past few months, the researchers have been conducting pilot studies in the classroom as they try to figure out the most effective way to introduce complex psychological concepts to young children. Because the study will focus on students between the ages of four and eight, the classroom lessons will rely heavily on peer modelling, such as showing kindergartners a video of a child successfully distracting herself during the marshmallow task. The scientists have some encouraging preliminary results—after just a few sessions, students show significant improvements in the ability to deal with hot emotional states—but they are cautious about predicting the outcome of the long-term study. “When you do these large-scale educational studies, there are ninety-nine uninteresting reasons the study could fail,” Duckworth says. “Maybe a teacher doesn’t show the video, or maybe there’s a field trip on the day of the testing. This is what keeps me up at night.”
Mischel’s main worry is that, even if his lesson plan proves to be effective, it might still be overwhelmed by variables the scientists can’t control, such as the home environment. He knows that it’s not enough just to teach kids mental tricks—the real challenge is turning those tricks into habits, and that requires years of diligent practice. “This is where your parents are important,” Mischel says. “Have they established rituals that force you to delay on a daily basis? Do they encourage you to wait? And do they make waiting worthwhile?” According to Mischel, even the most mundane routines of childhood—such as not snacking before dinner, or saving up your allowance, or holding out until Christmas morning—are really sly exercises in cognitive training: we’re teaching ourselves how to think so that we can outsmart our desires. But Mischel isn’t satisfied with such an informal approach. “We should give marshmallows to every kindergartner,” he says. “We should say, ‘You see this marshmallow? You don’t have to eat it. You can wait. Here’s how.’ ”
The marshmallow test, in all its incarnations, proves something that I believed a long time ago: self-control, the ability to overlook instant gratification and complete the task at hand, the understanding that delayed gratification is, in fact, far sweeter… these things are not innate. They are learned. Many of us learned it at a far younger age than others, but it isn’t genetic… hence the “nature and nurture” argument.
The article specifically calls out the fact that a person’s reactions are colored by (a) their personality and (b) the situation. It was speaking in regards to children, but I think this is particularly important in regards to adults, as well, and in terms of weight management I’d even add a third component: experiences. In other words, habituation.
If you’ve spent your entire life knowing that, after a bad event, a certain brand of cookie makes you feel better at the end of it all, then you develop a series of habits that will always make it easier for you to achieve that feeling when the bad days come. You will always drive to that store, make your way to that aisle, pick up those cookies, put them in your bag, carry them out the store, bring them into your car, drive them home, and ceremoniously eat them. Every. Single. Time. You have to break those habits, and you often have to fight those urges. If you value the cookies more than you value your developing ability to say NO to them (and any other benefits of saying NO to them… like, say, weight loss?), then you’ll continue to struggle with delaying the gratification that’d come with eating them.
I think that another important takeaway from this article is the reality that this is a quality that can be learned. You can learn to control your impulses better, and you can learn that long-term benefits are far more valuable than instant gratification… especially when you have to contend with the visible consequences of one’s choices, like potential weight gain.
It’s really important to understand this in terms of how you actually develop the ability to “say no” (also known as “the ability to delay gratification.”) It doesn’t come easily and it doesn’t come immediately. It can take years, but it is an invaluable quality to have, as evidenced above.
So, what do marshmallows have to do with will power? A lot. We’ve learned a lot about how self-control affects a child-soon-to-be-an-adult’s ability to complete tasks that don’t have immediate benefits, and we’ll be using this to explore how to develop a stronger sense of self-control. (None of this means you can eat that sweet potato casserole, though.)