NYT.com: OpTalkANNA ALTMAN
October 14, 2014
Walter Mischel conducted one of the most famous experiments in 20th-century psychology. In the late 1960s, he oversaw a test at Stanford University using a group of preschoolers. These studies gave him access to children whom he subsequently tracked for decades, collecting data on each child’s education, health and other factors. Now, more than 40 years later, he’s published a book, “The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self Control,” about the experiments.
In the marshmallow test, Mr. Mischel asked a preschool child to choose between receiving one small reward now (say, one marshmallow or one cookie) and waiting a short amount of time — about 10 minutes — to receive two rewards (two marshmallows or two cookies)….
…The test was designed to measure a child’s ability to delay gratification. The major problem at the heart of the test is the concept of intertemporal choice; that is, how we compare a larger delayed reward against a smaller immediate one. In study after study it’s been shown that our brains tend to undervalue a bigger payoff in the long-run, no matter what the objective calculation is.
In Mr. Mischel’s view, this is a test of willpower: the ability to use the brain’s executive, rational functions to overcome the immediacy — and emotional potency — of desire. In subsequent studies of his original subjects, Mr. Mischel found that children that were able to withstand temptation and wait for another treat were likely to have higher SAT scores, achieve higher educational degrees, earn more money and have a lower body mass index, an indication of healthy weight.
As Pamela Druckerman revealed in an Op-Ed for The New York Times last month, many parents (Ms. Druckerman included) subject their own children to the test, hoping to ascertain some glimpse of their child’s future. Mr. Mischel explains to her, however, that the results of the test are not destiny. On the contrary, self-control can be taught, and not only in childhood.
Mr. Mischel tells Ms. Druckerman that adults can learn from the children’s spontaneous attempts to resist temptation. Children were most successful when they tried to occupy their attention with something else — make up a song, say, or turn their back on the marshmallow — or transformed the object of desire in their mind, perhaps by imagining it as a piece of cotton or pretending it was smelly or dirty.
…Likewise, adults are better at avoiding temptation when they employ methods of distraction or distancing….
…Those habits can help us achieve what Mr. Mischel calls “a burning goal”: a long-term objective that requires consistent and often arduous work and attention….
…The key, all of these writers say, is to counter something that is emotionally “hot” — desire, temptation, emotion — with something “cool” — the brain’s executive function….
David DeSteno, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, however, sees it differently. He argues in a detailed, fascinating piece in Pacific Standard that learning to deal with impulses isn’t so much about building up self-control as it is training yourself to appeal to certain emotions — that is, not countering “hot” with “cool” so much as tapping into the correct “hot” response. Mr. DeSteno argues that emotions that have a moral valence and prize a greater social good — responses like gratitude, compassion, pride — can also help us control our behavior in favor of a delayed payoff. These qualities have been selected for historically because they are more likely to benefit a larger social structure.
In fact, an emotional response might be more effective and less draining in helping us resist temptation, especially over the long term. John Tierney wrote in 2011 in The New York Times Magazine that making decisions is depleting and that we each have only a finite amount of energy for making choices in a given time period. Mr. DeSteno refers to similar research, writing that even small decisions like whether to wear a blue or a white shirt wear down our willpower. And our executive function can be used to twist any decision to our advantage…For that reason, “any strategy based solely on forcing adherence to a set of virtues through a bunch of cool-headed, cognitive strategies and a list of ‘thou shall nots’ is a fragile one….”