Imagine you're five years old and a nice lady hands you a marshmallow. It’s soft white sweet gooeyness looks tantalising and it takes all your self-control not to eat it straight away. As the lady leaves the room she tells you that if you don’t eat the marshmallow until she gets back, she will give you two upon her return. She doesn’t tell you how long you will have to wait or where she is going. She just leaves you in the boring room with nothing to do but stare at the marshmallow. If you’re anything like me, this famous experiment is the equivalent of torture. In fact, a video of kids being put through the test is both agonising and heart warming to watch.
The scientist who originally devised The Marshmallow Test, Professor Walter Mischel has inspired dozens of other studies, which have found that the kids who were willing to delay the gratification of eating their sweet treat were more socially competent, more academically successful and more able to cope with stress among a host of other life long advantages.
It makes sense when you think about it. If you can delay the gratification of watching your favourite TV show until after you finish your homework, you’re going to do better in school; if you can resist the allure of sleeping in instead of going for a run in the morning, you’re going to be fitter; and if you can regularly choose fresh fruit instead of a chocolate bar, your body will thank you for it in the long term.
I can relate to those poor kids as they ogled, resisted, licked, nibbled and finally caved in. It reminds me so much of my own trials and tribulations in establishing healthy habits and facing life’s devilish temptations during my ongoing recovery from a chronic illness. Although you might think as you watch some of those kids sitting stoically in front of their marshmallow that self-control is innate, the good news is that new research is showing we can all improve our willpower.
It all starts by understanding that willpower is influenced by the experiences and circumstances of our every day lives. For example, researchers at the University of Rochester found that if the kids doing the marshmallow test didn’t believe that the lady giving them the treat would follow through on her promise of delivering two marshmallows, they surrendered faster. In the study, she’d already let them down during a prior creative task, promising better crayons and stickers and then not delivering. The kids who were made to believe she was unreliable waited an average of three minutes before giving in, versus the kids who thought she was reliable, who waited an average of twelve minutes. In other words, trusting and believing that the reward is coming may help you resist temptation.
It seems we can also suffer from willpower depletion after facing mental challenges. For example, in this study students who had to remember a seven number sequence were far less likely to resist chocolate cake. Depleted people have also been found to drink more alcohol when trying not to and give up on tasks faster. In other words, willpower is like a muscle that can get fatigued when we’re mentally exhausted.
On the flip side, a mood boost can overcome this sense of powerlessness over temptation. University of California researchers found that by lifting people’s spirits with comedy videos and surprise gifts they were able to restore their resolve after a challenging mental task. After a tough day at work, doing something you enjoy may well make all the difference to your ability to resist that extra glass of wine, or willingness to log out of your social media stream to get to bed on time.
Finally, there’s one major thing we can do if we want boost our self-control. For those who are regular readers of this blog and who have seen my film The Connection, you’ll hardly need another reason to start meditating; but for newbies, here it is.
In 2011 the kids who had been in the original Marshmallow test research project were now middle aged and scientists decided to put their brains under the microscope (or rather fMRI machine in this case). They found not only that the part of the brain which is central in decision making and moderating behaviour was more active in those with the greatest self control; but also that the ventral striatum (an area of the brain linked to addictions) was more active in those with the weakest self control. They also found that those who were better at delaying gratification as children remained so as adults and likewise for those who couldn’t wait.
If only these now grown up marshmallow test subjects had known that a 2012 Swiss study found a brief five-minute period of mindfulness meditation can be a quick and efficient strategy to foster self-control; or that Yale researchers found that mindfulness training is as effective, if not more so than standard smoking cessation programs; their entire lives may have turned out differently.
Regular meditation has also been shown to change our brain structure, especially in that all-important prefrontal cortex which is where our self-control kicks in. Regular mediators have been shown to have a thicker prefrontal cortex. They have also been shown to have a better ability to sustain focus and have greater emotion regulation. The more experienced the meditator, the better they get.
All this is to say that our brains are amazingly flexible. Like any muscle in our body, the more we work it, the stronger it will get. If you decide you want your brain to get better at self-control and give it the opportunity to do so, it will reshape and reform itself. In time you may well find sources of strength and willpower you never thought possible. On that note, I’m off to meditate.