"If the conditions that facilitate self-control, and those that undermine it, could be identified, perhaps they could be harnessed to teach people who have trouble waiting to be better at it."
Harnessing willpower and self-control is a challenge for all humans, but more so for some, than others. Whether we require this skill within our personal realm, such as the need to resist dessert or our professional realm, such as the restraint to avoid social media pulls throughout the workday, Walter Mischel has debunked the concept of willpower in The Marshmallow Test and has devoted years of research and analysis to help his readers better understand the complexities around self- control and the opportunities to develop or strengthen it, and use it to our advantage.
Back in the 1960s, Mischel and his team created The Marshmallow Test, a social experiment conducted on pre-school students that assessed the environment, circumstances, temptations and timing involved in harnessing willpower. Since then he has created longitudinal studies that have assessed these skills throughout the children’s lives and the impact on various facets of their life. The results have created compelling arguments for the importance of willpower and the strategies available to develop, strengthen and nurture this within ourselves.
The Big Idea
The Marshmallow Test
"The traditional belief that willpower is an inborn trait that you either have a lot of or you don’t (but cannot do much about either way) is false."
Taking place within the Bing Nursery School at Stanford University, the Marshmallow Test was first conducted with the intention of assessing willpower and the preschooler’s ability to delay gratification for the sake of future reward. With this pretense, children were offered a smaller reward (one marshmallow) immediately, or two marshmallows if they waited the designated time, both options were visible. The researchers then watched the children as they wrestled with the temptation, making observations and finding trends related to coping behaviors and strategies applied by each. While at times comical in his description of the children’s coping skills, it is clear that the variances in self-control, the methods of distraction and their delayed gratification are ever present from a young age. Later assessed in adulthood, Mischel’s research team found that “those who had delayed longer in preschool self-reported that they were able to pursue and reach long term goals, used risky drugs less, had reached higher educational levels, and had significantly lower body mass index.”
Whilst it is clear that some individuals are better than others in deploying self-control and exercising willpower, Mischel has discovered that it is not a set fate. We have the ability to learn, enhance and properly harness willpower as a skill and apply it at various stages within our lives, with careful assessment and thorough commitment.
This should come as a relief for those who can agree that human nature is malleable and open to change. If you self-identify as lacking this internal resistance, seemingly doomed by a fate of overindulgence—there is hope. “We do not come into this world with a bundle of fixed, stable traits that determine who we become.”
Getting over “Nature vs. Nurture”
"We don’t have to be victims of our social and biological histories. Self-control skills can protect us against our own vulnerabilities…"
Are we born naturally indulgent or instinctually unwavering? Are we bound by our genetic limitations, or do our values and personal goals carry weight when analyzing our self-control? The answer, according to Mischel, is “yes and no”. Mischel is no more tolerant of purely nature as he is purely nurture, adamant in his argument that “nature matters just as much as nurture.” The pure Nature argument is that our minds are hardwired from birth, fixed with unchanging traits that dictate our life’s path, the Nurture argument believes the mind is malleable and ever changing as we develop through interactions with our social and biological environments. Whereas, when analyzing our tendencies our innate willpower is strongly influenced by our genetic disposition with the interplay of environmental influences throughout the course of one’s life. Highlighting the work of Daniela Kaufer and Darlene Francis in 2011, Mischel writes: “Environments can be just as deterministic as we once believed only genes could be and…the genome can be as malleable as we once believed only environments can be.”
Through various case studies, including twin studies and socio-economic exploration, Mischel was able to demonstrate perseverance of natural tendencies where no modifications were encouraged, while also demonstrating incredible growth in restraint where environment and social influences alone can change the course of fate. Ultimately, if we gave ourselves the freedom to accept our natural tendencies, yet challenge ourselves to strive for optimal restraint and ideal application of willpower, we could have the best of both worlds.
Hot and cold
"Self-control involves more than determination; it requires strategies and insights, as well as goals and motivation, to make willpower easier to develop and persistence rewarding in its own right"
By understanding your natural tendencies and deploying strategies for growth, you can shift from being purely temptation and rewards based (hot) to more logical and detached (cold) in your decision-making behaviors. This is just one of the theories that support personal development as it relates to developing and nurturing willpower.
The hot and cold focus theory is a compelling one, meaning “the effect that a stimulus has on us depends on how we represent it mentally. An arousing representation focuses on the motivating, hot qualities of the stimulus… A cool representation focuses on more of the abstract, cognitive, informational aspects of the stimulus and tells you what it’s like without making it more tempting.”
Testing this theory within the Marshmallow Test framework, children were encouraged to explore both hot and cold representations of the treat in front of them. A hot representation has the marshmallow looking sweet and chewy, while the cold representation has it objectively described as round, white and soft, and “when cued to focus on the cool features of their rewards, children waited twice as long as when prompted to focus on the hot features.”
As adults, we can all identify our hot and cold responses, but a conscious approach to deploying appropriately can have us harnessing willpower in an effective and manageable way.
The Marshmallow Test is a deep dive into the intricate research platforms related to willpower and self-control. For most this summary will suffice as an actionable and inspiring launching point to take hold of our natural tendencies and explore the notion that we have the ability to control our own fate. The book also explores further concepts related to the psychology of human nature and the effectiveness of research analysis; if this appeals to the curious mind, reading further would prove advantageous. Ultimately, whether applied to our consumption habits, or various life distractions, the average reader can apply these hopeful findings into their personal and professional realm and find a successful grasp of their personal kryptonite.
How will you withhold your next temptation?