Academic success, social skills, emotional maturity, weight gain, alcohol abuse, self-esteem, and more . . . According to Columbia University Professor Walter Mischel, all of these can be evaluated using marshmallows. Well, it’s a little more complicated but it all relates to one of the most important qualities in making any behavior change.
Walter Mischel’s Marshmallow Study
In his classic study on delay of gratification, psychology professor Walter Mischel and colleagues tested preschoolers’ ability to resist eating marshmallows. The task was simple: a marshmallow was placed in front of the child on a plate. The experimenter explained that he had to leave the room but if the child didn’t eat the marshmallow, the experimenter would give the child a second when he returns. Some children resisted temptation. Others gobbled up the tasty morsel as soon as the experimenter left.
If the results stopped there, most of us would never have heard of this study. Mischel contacted some of the preschool participants when they were adolescents to see how they were doing. He found that children who were able to wait longer to eat their marshmallows tended to score higher on their SATs in adolescence (over 200 points higher), to have better social and emotional adjustment, be less likely to use drugs, and have higher self-esteem.
Walter Mischel Discusses his Classic Study
Delay of Gratification in Adulthood
We’ll examine the results of these preschool studies in more detail later but delay of gratification goes beyond marshmallows. As adults, every day we are faced with the opportunity to act in the moment or to restrain ourselves. The ability to stay focused on a goal and continue to take actions toward it, despite temptations, is called delay of gratification.
Suppose you’re goal is to eat healthy. On your way home from work, you walk past a bakery. The smell of chocolate invites you in. Red velvet cupcakes innocently stare at your from inside the window display. Your taste buds are a sucker for any dame dressed in cream cheese frosting. Can you continue home or do stop in and leave with half a dozen high calorie companions?
Examples of Delaying Gratification
We can take the easiest or the most readily available action, which might provide temporary satisfaction, but not a solution to our problem. Consider these scenarios:
An argument with a friend, family member, or partner Win the argument by criticizing or name calling your “opponent” because you hate to let others get away with this. Listening to your “opponent,” bite your tongue, and then calmly bring up your concerns later when tempers have cooled
Receiving a snide email from a coworker Fire back a response that puts the person in his/her place. Don’t respond. Wait half an hour and then see whether it’s worth responding.
Seeing a beautiful jacket, purse, or clothing that you can’t afford Charging the item on your credit card, despite having a large balance. Resisting the temptation by getting the heck out of the store.
Exercising in the morning. Watching one of your favorite TV shows instead of going to the gym. Put on your gym clothes as soon as the alarm rings.
Feeling depressed and wanting the misery to end. Analyzing your personality “to fix” yourself when you’re in the dumps. A proven strategy to highlight all your faults. Waiting until you feel better to think about why you’re the way you are.
How to Restrain from Eating Marshmallows and Other Impulses
But why are some children able to delay gratification better than others? When videos of preschoolers from Mischel’s original study were examined, the children who looked away from the marshmallow, covered their eyes, or used other strategies to block out the rewards were more likely to wait for the second marshmallow.
In other experiments, Mischel thought that having children think about or look at the rewards (the marshmallow or snack) would help the children delay gratification. The strategy backfired. Bringing the temptation to mind reduced willpower. But thinking about the rewards in an abstract way, as if it were a picture or something less appealing (thinking about a pretzel as a long brown log), enhanced delay of gratification.
Hot and Cold Thoughts
The effects of how we look at things helped Mischel and his colleagues draw bigger conclusions about what underlies willpower and delay of gratification. Rather than looking at willpower as how you focus attention (on the temptation at hand or on something else), Mischel reasoned that the quality of our thoughts either strengthened or eroded willpower. Looking at a temptation’s savory, pleasing, or enticing features creates “hot thoughts.” These thoughts amplify urges, appetite, and desire. If you’re like me, thinking about the creamy, sweet feeling of ice cream or gelato melting on your tongue is an absolute hot thought.
Hot thoughts apply to more than just food. Imagine you need a new vehicle but can’t spend lots of money. After your first trip, you find a vehicle you like but one that requires taking on more debt than you should. You imagine how nice it would be to have a new car – a smoother ride, no more embarrassing rust spots, great acceleration. . . You’re brain is swirling with hot thoughts and you’re ready to sign the loan papers.
While hot encourage immediate gratification, cool thoughts create a barrier and support self-restraint. Cool thoughts are rational, abstract, and lack the stimulation of hot thoughts. Mischel created cool thoughts in his preschool participants by having them think about marshmallows as large cotton balls. But adult life is more complicated than marshmallows.
Consider parenting a toddler, which is something I am doing right now. I asked my two-year-old to get ready for daycare and to take his pajamas off. He cries out “No! I don’t want to take them off!” Then runs away. My hot thoughts are those impulsive reactions: “Yes, you will and I’m stick and tired of fighting with you about everything!” I’m already running late and I have one gram of patience and it was spent last week. These hot thoughts emerge as frustration, anger, and indignation and lead a completely counterproductive battle of wills.
But this time, I stopped myself and waited a few minutes before responding. I tried to step away from the situation and ask myself what I wanted to get. I reflected on advice from a parenting book I recently read that suggested I not reacting when angry. When I asked my son why he wanted to wear his pajamas shirt, he told me he didn’t want to “take Woody off,” which was the Woody character from the movie Toy Story. So we compromise and he took off his pajamas bottoms and wore his tops but I put another shirt over his. By getting out of the hot thoughts, I was able to think more clearly and do something different than just get upset.
My own experience and that of my patients is that
delaying gratification allows us to generate alternatives – not just the one that’s in arms reach. When we step back, we see other solutions and perspectives. Those hot thoughts lock us into a very narrow frame of mind and dramatically limit our problem-solving ability.
Different Types of Delay of Gratification
Most delay of gratification research looks at good delayers vs. poor delayers. But it may not be that simple. Each of us might be better at delaying in certain ways and worse at delaying in other ways. Michael Hoerger, a doctor at the University of Rochester Medical Center, and colleagues created a measure that has five types of delaying gratification: food (“I can resist junk food when I wanted to), physical pleasure (“I have given up physical pleasure or comfort to reach my goals), social interactions (“I’m OK taking turns with other people”), money (“I can resist buying things I cannot afford”), and achievement (“In school, I rarely took the easy way out.”). The study found that delay of gratification in most these areas related to mental and physical health.
Delaying gratification is more than just resisting marshmallows. It applies to adults just as much as children but the stakes are much higher. Delaying gratification can help or hinder work, relationships, academics, family, physical and mental health, and more. The evidence is clear. If you struggle to delay gratification, at least to some extent, you’re likely to experience many more problems in life. It makes sense because often our knee-jerk decisions and impulses, those that are driven by desire, don’t consider all of our options and allow us to get perspective. Think about your ability to delay gratification and how this has affected your life. Below are recommendations to be more a more effective delayer.
- Assess How You’re Doing. Assess where you are most likely to have trouble delaying gratification and how much this has impacted you? Consider the five areas of gratification discussed earlier. Which area do you need to give more attention to: food, physical, social interactions, money, or achievement.
- Get Specific. Once you’ve identified the area you want to work on, get more specific. What are your greatest temptations? Why are these situations tempting to you? How much effort are you willing to put into self-restraint? Try to set guidelines for restrain: a budget, a certain number of calories, or a behavior (staying calm when your children tantrums). Set realistic goals and never be so self-depriving that delaying gratification becomes a punishment. This has been shown to erode willpower.
- Find Your Values. One overlooked way to build willpower is through values. Why is it important to refrain or limit whatever indulgence tempts you? What’s the big deal with buying more clothes or eating too much junk food? Maybe your health or financial stability is really at stake. Or maybe it your beliefs about not being extravagant or wasteful? Are there certain moral or spiritual values that you want to live by, e.g., being a good person, be a patient parent?
- Enlist Social Support. Whatever your goal, the support and encouragement of others is like glue to a joint. Share what you are working on and when appropriate ask for suggestions or help. Just telling others about goals makes us more likely to achieve them.
- Thinking Differently. This is the most basic advice from Mischel’s work on delay of gratification but also the most challenging. You can improve self-control by focusing your attention away from hot thoughts and toward cooler, more abstract thoughts. This kind of reappraisal is a long-term practice. You have to start thinking of temptations in a more detached way. It takes considerable reflection to put certain situations in a cooler frame. If you get into an argument and you want to win, think of the argument in the context of your whole life. How important will this argument be next year or even next month? Get out of the moment. Eventually, you should be able to recognize your hot thoughts and shift away to a more objective perspective. But this will probably take months of dedicated effort.
- Managing Mental Health. Anything you can do to improve your mental health will help impulse control. Meditation, yoga, journaling, exercise, deep breathing, therapy. . . all of these will help you be less emotional and less reactive when temptation strikes. Strong negative emotions lead to impulsiveness. This is a long-term investment but well worth it if you have the dedication.