Generally speaking, I’m not a fan of marshmallows…with four notable exceptions.
- A golden brown one in a s’more on a camping trip.
- Watching what happens when you put one in the microwave. Try it sometime 😉
- The fact that the original marshmallows were made from the root of the useful medicinal plant Althea officinalis…aka Marshmallow root.
- What we’ve learned since the first “marshmallow study” over 50 years ago.
Besides those four things, typical supermarket marshmallows are something that you should avoid. But they are certainly tempting…which is why by the legendary psychologist Walter Mischel used them in a remarkable long-term study that started way back in 1960 at Stanford University.
What the Famous Marshmallow Study Means for You
The purpose of this experiment, which I’ll explain in a moment, is to shed light on the importance of delaying gratification, a quality that is inextricably tied to success. Call it willpower, but people who can resist instant gratification are far more likely to do well in life. I’ll share some interesting research on why this is the case. But first, let’s take a closer look at the marshmallow study.
The actual experiment could not be simpler as you can see for yourself in this adorable video. Essentially, a researcher brings a 4-year-old child into a room with a table with a plate containing a single marshmallow. Then, the experimenter tells the child that he or she can eat the marshmallow now…or if they can wait for a few minutes without eating it…they can have another marshmallow. Basically, it’s one marshmallow now, or two marshmallows later. Your choice. Then the experimenter leaves the room.
Delaying Gratification is Key to Success
Not surprisingly, some of the children give in quickly and eat the first marshmallow, and others are able to hold out for the second one. Where the study really gets interesting though is that these children were followed by the research team at Stanford for decades after the initial experiment.
Long -term follow-ups have confirmed that children who didn’t eat the marshmallow — that is, children who could delay gratification — were more successful in every respect than their more indulgent counterparts.
Follow-up studies have confirmed Mishel’s initial findings:
- A 1988 study found that preschoolers who delayed eating the initial marshmallow were much more competent teens.
- Results from a 1990 study showed a strong correlation between delaying gratification and higher SAT scores.
- In a 2006 study, scientists found that kids who could delay gratification demonstrated faster reaction times on tasks.
- In 2011, researchers using brain imaging techniques found that adults who could delay gratification had more activity in the prefrontal cortex (a brain region responsible for higher cognitive functions. On the other hand, the ventral striatum (a region linked to addiction and compulsive behavior) was more active in subjects who had trouble delaying gratification.
- A 2012 study demonstrated that kids who are able to delay gratification have lower BMI (they’re thinner) 30 years later.
Numerous other studies have found a strong correlation between self-control and health outcomes, educational achievement, and numerous other quality of life measures.
Increasing Your Willpower
The ability to delay gratification is another way of describing willpower or self-control. And social science experiments have repeatedly demonstrated that self-control is a strong predictor of success in life. In fact, there is only one factor that ranks higher than self-control when it comes to predicting success… and that factor is IQ.
Now, it’s pretty well-established that IQ is fairly consistent throughout our lives. Education is a wonderful thing and there are some tips and tricks that can modestly boost IQ but unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot that we can do to boost our IQ scores significantly. But willpower…well, that’s a trait that we can improve through training and effort.
With that in mind, I’d like to offer you one of the most important ways you can strengthen your willpower. It involves drawing what I call “bright lines” around your habits and your behaviors. The rationale behind this is that firm boundaries tend to preserve and enhance self-control whereas blurry lines tend to invite temptation. Good fences make good neighbors right?
To see why, let’s pretend that you are trying to lose weight. (70% of American’s are overweight so there’s a good chance we don’t need to pretend.) Obviously, staying away from junk food is going to be part of the process…and critical to your success. If you draw clear boundaries about what foods you will and won’t eat, and set clear limits from the outset — for example “No high fructose corn syrup” or “At least one green vegetable every day”… When you have bright lines like that, those line become something like a roadmap for your journey– and along the way, you are less likely to be derailed by constant temptation.
Increasing Self-Mastery by Reducing Temptation
When you think about it, reducing temptation is key to enhancing self-mastery. To paraphrase psychologist Roy Baumeister, author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (and numerous studies on self-control), people with people with low willpower use it to get themselves out of temptation. People with high willpower use it to avoid temptation in the first place.
There’s another dimension to willpower I’d like to discuss, which ties back to overcoming temptation. Brain imaging studies show that a region of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex is especially important when it comes to exercising self-control. But this portion of our gray matter needs to be tended to. What do I mean by that? We can bolster our prefrontal cortex by consuming high-quality neuroprotective foods (truly “brain food”), which support neuronal health and help the brain deal with stress.
Why Stress in the Enemy of Willpower
You can think of stress as the enemy of willpower because it causes people to revert to ingrained habits. That’s why people under stress often opt for cigarettes, alcohol, or junk food. But it becomes a vicious cycle really — studies show that as levels of the stress hormone cortisol increase… so do the cravings for carbohydrates.
Neuroscientists describe the prefrontal cortex as the “seat of self-control.” When it is damaged — or not fully developed as is the case in children and teens (it is one of the last brain regions to mature) — impulse control is diminished. It follows that anything you do to exercise and nourish your prefrontal cortex will help you enhance your willpower. Things you can do include:
- Practice delaying gratification. Make it a challenge against yourself.
- Eat neuroprotective foods. Wild caught fish, nuts, seeds, avocado, vegetables and fruit.
- Minimize toxic exposure (lots more on that subject here).
- Get adequate rest.
- Increase your physical activity to improve your brain function and help to manage stress.
Study after study shows that the ability to delay gratification is one of the hallmarks of success. Unlike IQ (which is mostly fixed) willpower is a quality you can work to improve.
Human beings are uniquely gifted in their ability to delay gratification. My dog, Raya, isn’t going to pass up an opportunity to indulge her appetites. She’s perfect the way she is because that’s the way nature made her (and she has us to look out for her).
But the potential people have is even more complex and to reach it depends on a quality known as self-mastery. I hope some of the ideas I’ve shared will help you bolster your willpower and keep you on the path to success.