Walter Mischel conducted the ‘Marshmallow Study’ over several years during the late 1960’s at Stanford University. The now famous experiment involved hundreds of four year old children who were made an offer – they could either eat one marshmallow immediately or wait until the experimenter returned to the room and be rewarded with two marshmallows simply for waiting. The children were left alone in the room to stare at the one marshmallow and test their ability to wait for a bigger reward. A hidden camera caught on film the interesting and hilarious results.
Around 7 out of 10 of the children struggled to resist the treat while left alone for up to 15 minutes, and most caved after an average of three minutes. About 30% of the participants managed to successfully delay gratification and wait until the researcher returned in order to score their two treats. These kids wrestled with temptation too, but managed to resist via an array of creative distraction tactics: Moving away from the table, covering their eyes so as not to look at the treat, playing with their hair or clothes or kicking the table. The videos of similar experiments on You Tube are hilarious.
Mischel made some interesting discoveries throughout the participants’ childhood, teen years and even adulthood:
· Low delayers (children who caved into temptation quickly) seemed more likely to have behavioural problems in later years and achieved lower academic scores
· Low delayers had trouble paying attention
· High delayers had much higher academic scores
· Low delayers have a significantly higher body mass index scores (BMI)
· Brain imaging showed key differences between the two groups in two areas: the prefrontal cortex (more active in high delayers) and the ventral striatum (an area linked to addictions)
Ability to delay gratification and exercise self discipline was a determinant of future success and achievement of goals.
You might argue that our ability to show self control merely relies on how badly we want that immediate reward. Did the children who caved simply want the marshmallow more?
Jonah Lehrer, in his article for the New Yorker, Don’t! The Secret of Self-control writes “At the time, psychologists assumed that children’s ability to wait depended on how badly they wanted the marshmallow. But it soon became obvious that every child craved the extra treat. What, then, determined self-control? Mischel’s conclusion, based on hundreds of hours of observation, was that the crucial skill was the “strategic allocation of attention.” Instead of getting obsessed with the marshmallow—the “hot stimulus”—the patient children distracted themselves by covering their eyes, pretending to play hide-and-seek underneath the desk, or singing songs from “Sesame Street.” Their desire wasn’t defeated—it was merely forgotten. “If you’re thinking about the marshmallow and how delicious it is, then you’re going to eat it,” Mischel says. “The key is to avoid thinking about it in the first place.””(1)
So what can we learn from this and how can we apply it to our health and fitness goals?
- Everyone experiences temptation, the trick is to delay the immediate gratification for the future (bigger) reward
- Distraction is the most successful method of delaying gratification
- Will power is not about ‘strength of character’ but the ability to direct our attention
- Keep the bigger reward in mind at all times of temptation (achieving your fitness goal)
- Avoid having unhealthy foods in the fridge or pantry where they’ll tempt you
- Avoid the chocolate and chips aisles at the supermarket (out of sight, out of mind)
- When feeling tempted to binge on unhealthy foods, distract yourself with something that requires a lot of attention
- Don’t eat while distracted with some other task. It’s too easy to overeat
- Keep a written or picture version of your goals where you can see them regularly and keep them in mind
- Don’t beat yourself up when your food or exercise balance gets out of whack. Just draw your attention back to the bigger picture and the greater reward
How do you avoid the immediate ‘marshmallow’ temptation in order to achieve the bigger goal? Share your tips in the comments section below…
(1) Lehrer, Jonah (May 18, 2009). “Don’t: The Secret of Self Control”. The New Yorker.