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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Mastering Self-Control. Or Not.

Scene: kitchen table. Remains of dinner present. Children absent. Just the husband and I and the dog, despairing of collecting any treats at all. The husband reaches into the snack cabinet and takes two cookies. He offers one to me.

Me: (After a pause.) No, thanks. IF I don’t have one now, THEN I can have a bigger one later.
Husband: Ah! The Marshmallow Test in action. I get it.
Me: That’s right. Self-control in action.
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The husband was referring to my latest bedtime reading, Walter Mischel’s, The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self Control. I wrote about the Marshmallow Test in a previous post. For those not as interested in psychology as I am, I’ll summarize. It’s a test, devised by Mischel in the 1960s, that involves bringing a young child into a room, and offering her the option of one fabulous, limbic-system triggering treat right now, or two fabulous, limbic-system triggering treats if she waits. The tester then tells the child she will be leaving and will return later. There is a hotel bell on the table in the room, and the tester tells the child she may ring it at any point and the tester will return. If she doesn’t ring it at all, and she doesn’t eat the treat (a marshmallow left on the table by the bell) then she can have the double fancy treat when the tester returns. Then the tester leaves the room and watches through a one-way glass window while the child either gives in, or applies amusing and creative methods of distracting herself (nose-picking; turning her back on the marshmallow; talking to the bell; even falling asleep) until the tester returns.  IF the child waits, THEN she will have a greater reward. The If-Then implementation strategy in action.

Mischel went on to study these participants many years later, and discovered that the ones who were able to delay gratification at four and five were doing, on the whole, much better in school, and were less obese, and generally more successful than those who went for that one marshmallow.  His results have been somewhat misunderstood by the general public in ways that do a disservice to people who come from poor neighborhoods, broken homes, abusive situations, or any other kind of high-stress environment. People have assumed that his results were definitive, reflecting some kind of innate amount of self-control. There have been runs on marshmallows as anxious parents rush to test their preschoolers, under the misapprehension that unless the children can delay their urge to eat the treats, they are doomed to failure. 

I’m joking about the runs on marshmallows, Readers. I am not joking about the misunderstanding of Mischel’s test.

Mischel learned, early on, that the ability to delay gratification depends on many variables. The ability is not innate; it’s circumstantial. According to Mischel, the temptation triggers the “hot” neural system – the limbic system, which is our more primitive system of arousal. The “cool” system – the prefrontal cortex – takes time to kick in. A child who lives under stress of poverty, disorder, or some other miserable situation will have a sensitive limbic system trigger. It makes sense, in that situation, to take what you can get when you can see it in front of you because you might not get anything if you wait for something you can’t see. A child who has had positive, trusting relationships with adults will be able to wait longer than a child who has been let down by adults. A child who knows how long he will have to wait for the adult to return does better than a child who doesn't know when the tester will return. A child who is primed with strategies for resisting temptation will do better than a child who hasn’t been. The upshot is that self-control is teachable. So if you prime the cool system ahead of time, it will override the hot and stop you from eating that single marshmallow. If you help the highly stressed child to change his reaction to those circumstances, he can have as much ability as the child from the stable environment to delay gratification.

Which brings us back to me and my If-Then implementation plans, which have helped me wrench myself away from the hot triggers of Pinterest, etc., with the promise of a reward after I do some work.

It also brings us back to me and the husband at dinner the other night. Remember that pause, before I refused a cookie at that moment, with a plan to have a bigger, better cookie later? Well, right after that admirable marshalling of my prefrontal cortex, I admitted to the husband that my first thought, during the pause, was that since no children were there, I could have a cookie now AND have a bigger one later, without them knowing I violated the dessert rule. Such as it is. The rule I mean. If I had to summarize it, I would say the rule is, have dessert, but never quite as much of it as you would like, and only have it once per night.

But, Readers, you see how it works, the self-control, IF-Then, small reward now or hold out for a bigger, better reward later.

Then I went upstairs and took a piece of chocolate from my secret stash.

As ever, I am a work in progress.


  1. When my daughter was in pre-school, she participated in one of these tests that a student in the Pysch dept. at SUNY was doing. Only, not just marshmallows but cookies and ones that she was even able to decorate and still couldn't touch for 5 minutes or whatever. It was amazing to watch from behind the mirror as she played and occasionally looked at the cookie but then continued to play. I'd never seen such self control. On the way out, we took the cookies with us. She suggested saving them for her sister just as I was sneaking a bite. Maybe one of these days, I too can learn it.

    Also,does chocolate count, since it's good for you now?

    1. I found the entire book so interesting. Children could wait and wait and wait under the right circumstances - primed properly. Also, it turns out that while you might be able to wait indefinitely for your cookie, you can lack self-control entirely around other triggers personal to you.

      Sadly, chocolate does count.