To Eat Cake Now or Later?


By Michele Bacigalupo

Photo courtesy of Kate Ter Haar.

According to the findings of Dr. Walter Mischel, the key to happiness, success, and personal growth lies within one’s capability to exercise self-control. Mischel discovered this truth when he invented an experiment in the early 1960s, which he deigned the Marshmallow Test.

The purpose of the experiment was to measure self-control in children. It also compared the outcomes of an instant reward system against one of delayed gratification. Mischel has since published his findings, as well as pieces from his own life experience, in the book The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control.

The original subjects of the Marshmallow Test were a group of preschool-aged children. The kids were brought into a room that was mostly empty, devoid of any toys or distractions, and led to a table where they were presented with a single marshmallow. The adult assisting with the test instructed the children that they could eat the treat at any time or they could wait until the adult returned to the room, at which time they would be granted two marshmallows instead of one. The children were then left alone in the room for 15 minutes to weigh their options and decide their marshmallow fate.

Mischel found that the subjects who were successful in delaying their reward devised interesting methods of distracting themselves from the marshmallow on the table. Some of the children turned away from the table, so as not to face the treat. Others sang songs or came up with creative games to entertain themselves.

For the next 50 years, Mischel maintained up-to-date progress reports on the original test subjects. The preschoolers who had passed the Marshmallow Test encountered more success in their adult lives than the preschoolers who had succumbed to temptation. By exercising self-control and the patience to wait for the greater reward of two marshmallows, the children displayed a trait that would persist throughout their lives.

In adulthood, the delayed gratification group proved to be better at tasks that required executive function. This group showed a lower rate of divorce, a lower BMI, and was less likely to have problems with addiction than the group who originally opted for the instantaneous reward. The more patient group was also found to receive higher academic marks and SAT scores.

According to Mischel, self-control is a skill that can be learned at any age. The strategy can be taught–it’s simply a matter of learning to calm the mind and quiet an emotional longing for something that the individual is trying to avoid. The preschoolers who exemplified delayed gratification in the original experiment were merely already equipped to execute the practice.

For adults who want to hone techniques of self-control, Mischel stresses the effectiveness of visualization. By imagining the thing you’re trying to avoid as aversive, your brain will eventually begin to see it that way. No matter how alluring an object or action once seemed, the mind is still able to shift its way of thinking, so long as you maintain the unappealing vision.

For instance, think about how difficult it is for people to lose weight. Research shows that successful dieting ultimately boils down to two factors in regard to our food choices: health and taste. People who are able to refuse fatty foods are more concerned with the healthiness level than they are with the taste. By exercising this pattern of thinking, these people are able to make more nutritious choices when it comes to eating and weight loss. On the other hand, people who are more obsessed with taste are more likely to make ill-informed decisions by eating food that tastes delectable but is ultimately terrible for their health.

In the brain, there are two separate locations that play a significant role in deciding precisely how much emotional desire will go into our choices. There is a large amount of activity evident in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex when people choose options with more long-term benefits rather than immediate rewards. Similar patterns are found in the ventral medial prefrontal cortex, which tends to play a role in financial decisions. Again, more visible activity in this region correlates to a more disciplined grasp of self-control.

Before creating the Marshmallow Test, Mischel was a heavy smoker of three packs a day. After the first Surgeon General’s report on tobacco was released in 1964, he attempted to quit the habit, but like so many others, found quitting to be more challenging than expected. It wasn’t until he encountered a man with lung cancer in the corridors of Stanford’s medical school that he was able to finally change his perception on cigarette smoking. The sick man was in the throes of the disease–he had his head shaved and X’s marked on his body for radiation purposes. After this experience, Mischel would envision the man with cancer every time he craved a cigarette. He claims that he altered his view on smoking in this way. Cigarettes, once seen as an object of desire, now appeared entirely repulsive to him.

Self-control is possible for everyone. It’s not a matter of willpower, but one of emotional intelligence, relying on mental images, and motivating ourselves to actually do what we say we want to do. After all, if preschoolers are disciplined enough to wait 15 minutes for a reward that’s dangling in front of them, then the rest of us don’t have a valid excuse as to why we can’t do the same.