The Marshmallow Test

A few years ago I wrote an article based on Wendy Wood’s theory that the key to breaking a habit is to break the routine associated with it. For example, Wood found college students were more successful in breaking their television habit if the TV were placed in an unfamiliar location. I joked that I might eat healthier if I stopped getting on planes.

That strategy hasn’t worked for me.

In his excellent book, “The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control,” psychologist Walter Mischel explains why breaking an existing habit isn’t by itself enough to increase self-control. For those who may not have heard of Mischel, he is the creator of one of the most famous experiments in psychology; the so-called marshmallow test.

The original marshmallow experiment was conducted in the late 1960s on children age four to six at the Bing Nursery School at Stanford University. The children were offered a treat of their choice (marshmallow, cookie, or pretzel) and given the option of eating it immediately or waiting alone in a distraction-free room for up to 20 minutes. Any child who lasted the entire time without eating the first treat would get two treats as a reward.

While some children ate the treat as soon as the researchers left the room, the vast majority tried to control their impulses. According to Mischel, the children would “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.” About one-third of the children managed to last the full time period and were rewarded with the second treat. Not surprisingly, this included more 6 year olds than 4 year olds.

The implications of this research became more pronounced when the researchers reexamined the same children years later. Mischel found the children who had waited the longest in the original experiment had better life outcomes than the others. They were healthier, they performed better in school, and they made more money.

While genetics has an impact on how much self-control we have, a central tenet of this book is that we can substantially increase our ability to control our impulses. Mischel provides lots of guidance of how we can train our brain. Here are three that stuck with me:

  • Create a good habit
    The challenge with bad habits is that it’s difficult to always avoid the stimulus. You may clear your house of junk food but someone will bring donuts to a business meeting. Instead, train yourself by repeating a good habit over and over again until it becomes a routine. Take the stairs every day instead of riding in the elevator.
  • Visualize the long-term consequence
    Instant gratification is tempting because the impact is immediate. Associate the stimulus with a long-term, negative impact. For example, if you are trying to stop smoking, watch videos of cancerous lungs. When you reach for a cigarette, you will visualize the effect on your lungs.
  • Abstract the situation so it’s less personal
    It’s easier to help someone else with a difficult situation than it is to help yourself. Imagine yourself as an observer so you can be more objective. Instead of thinking “I can drive after having that drink”, the situation becomes “Jonathan shouldn’t drink and drive.”

Mischel and his colleagues have successfully taught these techniques to hundreds of children. They also managed to teach self-control to Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster:

It’s a good lesson for me. I was on a plane writing this article when the flight attendant offered me a cookie. Me want it but me wait.

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