The secret of self-control

Image: The New YorkerRemember the marshmallow kids? The four-year-olds who were tested for their ability to delay taking a sweet back in the late 1960s are still under the microscope as scientists try to fathom the secrets of self control.

According to The New Yorker, the experiment went like this. Children from the Bing Nursery School at Stanford University were invited into a room where they could be observed and allowed to pick a treat from a tray of marshmallows, cookies and pretzel sticks. They were told they could eat it straight away, or they could wait a few minutes and then have two when the researcher returned.

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 lasted less than three minutes before eating the marshmallow, but about 30 per cent successfully delayed gratification until the researcher returned some 15 minutes later. These kids wrestled with temptation but found a way to resist.

When Walter Mischel, the professor in charge of the experiment, began to follow up the children systematically in 1981 he found that “low delayers” seemed more likely to have behavioural problems, both in school and at home. They got lower SAT scores. They struggled in stressful situations, often had trouble paying attention, and found it difficult to maintain friendships. The child who could wait 15 minutes had a SAT score on average 210 points higher than that of the kid who could wait only 30 seconds.

In their late 30s the low-delaying adults tended to be overweight and to have had problems with drugs. That was based on self-reports, but the scientists are keen to study the brains of the participants and do genetic tests in order to pin down “the neural circuitry of self-control”. It’s self-control rather than intelligence that determines success in life, says Mischel. And self-control depends not so much on sheer will power as on the ability to think beyond the immediate situation.

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.”

Mischel and his colleagues continue to look for the reasons that some four-year-olds had the ability to delay gratification and some did not -- and, importantly, that some who could not wait when they were four developed that ability successfully as adults. The researchers are looking at people’s brains, their genes, and their family environment. They are trying to find out whether “waiting” can be taught. (They may be overestimating “tricks” and underestimating willpower.) There are teachers keen to help; one jumped the fence into research because she found that “trying to teach a teenager algebra when they don’t have self-control is a pretty futile exercise.”

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.’ ” ~ Hat tip to Gabriel James


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