I have a confession to make – I did the Marshmallow Test (“one now, or two later?”) with my son when he was four years old. The time-honoured finding of the test is that those who can sit it out for a bigger reward at the age of four are more likely to have higher educational attainment, more fulfilling careers and lives in adulthood due to their ability to delay gratification.
The self-control that they exhibit when waiting for the sweets predicts that they are more likely to work hard for exams, promotions and that they are less likely to succumb to excesses and even resist temptations to stray in relationships. I know. I bet you’re thinking I was an idiot to do the test on my son. After all, how would I feel if he didn’t manage to sit it out? Would this supposed prediction into the future be a difficult burden to bare?
Perhaps I wouldn’t have done it if I thought too much about the ramifications, instead I was tempted by a combination of curiosity and opportunity. I was in a phase of feeling like I didn’t really know what made my son tick and coincidentally I happened to be reading Mischel’s book where the infamous studies dating back to the 1960s are explained.
Whilst my son chose to wait, it turns out I needn’t have worried if he didn’t. Recent research suggests that behaviour during the test may not give us the full picture of why those who wait are more successful in their later lives. The fuller explanation which is now emerging suggests that the potential benefits bestowed upon the 30% of children who wait are accessible to all – given that it has less to do with an inner trait and more to do with teachable tactics. Mind you, it’s also worth noting that critics of the test say that it doesn’t test the child at all, but instead reflects the degree to which the adult can be trusted to fulfil their promise of “two later” (and by implication, the consistency of care given to the child).
It’s the research conducted by Oxford University (Levy, 2015) that’s refined the understanding of self-control (and therefore the implications of the Marshmallow Test) by distinguishing between two contributory factors affecting our ability to delay gratification: (1) our willpower and (2) our use of self-management strategies.
- Willpower is best described as ‘control exerted to do something or restrain impulses’, a case of mind over matter if you like
- Self-management strategies are made up of two elements (Paul Dolan, 2014):
- Practical steps we take to nudge ourselves towards the desirable behaviours that will take us closer to achieving our long-term goals, e.g. eating off smaller plates to lose weight, or putting our gym kit out in the evening to make it more likely to go in the morning (to get fit). These strategies remove the need for us to rely on conscious effort to do certain things and therefore make us more likely to do it.
- It also includes changing our attention, either by distracting ourselves (e.g. those successful at the marshmallow test sang to take their mind off the sweets in front of them); ‘reframing’ target of our focus (e.g. seeing marshmallows as ‘fluffy clouds’ rather than edible sweets, seeing cigarettes as ‘cancer sticks’).
The researchers found:
- Willpower is a limited resource and is susceptible to fatigue – we only have so much in our tank.
- It’s like a muscle, the more you use willpower, the stronger it becomes.
- Those with high self-control rely on self-management strategies and therefore have surprisingly low willpower (because they don’t practice it). If they are given a test which prevents them from using their self-management strategies, they perform worse than those with low self-control.
- High self-control subjects are also more susceptible to the debilitating effects of fatigue than low self-control subjects.
- Glucose indirectly counteracts the effects of fatigue, by signalling to the old part of our brain that “reward is coming” (i.e. “food” in caveman terms) – which helps us to hold out for longer. This effect is more pronounced in those with high self-control (a scientific excuse for chocolate…).
- So, if you want to improve your self-control (or your child is a potential marshmallow-guzzler), then you can do so by developing self-management strategies, rather than relying on willpower alone.
- As adults, it also implies the need to be realistic, in that we can’t expect ourselves to maintain our self-control across multiple areas of our lives over a sustained period – something is going to give. We’ve only got to look at Tiger Woods and other celebrities who are famed for their seemingly uncharacteristic lapses in self-control in certain areas of their lives, whilst maintaining absolute control in others.
But what do self-management strategies look like in the real world? Well, I’m sure if you look at what you do on a daily basis with your kids, you’ll be using heaps. Here’s a couple of examples from our family which illustrate the two types of ‘self-management strategies’:
- Example of diverting attention: We tell our sons to distract themselves when they are drooling with hunger before mealtimes and that they’ll only make it harder to wait if they stand and watch us cook. ‘A watched kettle never boils’ as they say…
- Example of a nudge: We leave the list of spellings that need to be learnt out on the kitchen table overnight to serve as a prompt to practice them straight after breakfast in the morning. If they are not done then, there’s lots of huffing and puffing about it. But by doing them routinely in the morning, he barely bats an eyelid.
So, we can all no doubt breathe easy in the knowledge that there’s stuff we’re already doing which demonstrate effective strategies and which will pave the way for them developing their own.
You could therefore argue that if that’s the case, there’s no need for us to bother unpicking the meaning behind marshmallow-eating. For many, that may be true, but by understanding how these inner processes work, we can retrain our brains to get the outcomes we want and prevent ourselves (and our kids) falling off the proverbial bandwagon. Whilst some four-year olds may utilise the self-management strategies more naturally than others, the great news is that we can all learn.
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