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The Marshmallow Test and Self-Control

The Marshmallow Test and Self-Control
Are you tempted?

Willpower is a strange thing. We use it to try and control our actions, but the more we use it, the weaker it becomes. Monday morning we stand strong against junk food and eat a healthy breakfast, but by the evening we're ordering pizza and dessert. Throughout the day the increasing power of temptations makes "caving in" all but inevitable for many. Now researchers may know why.

Willpower is a limited resource. When you wake up in the morning, you have a lot, but as you use it throughout the day, it diminishes. It's like a muscle. If you work your biceps, they eventually get exhausted from the effort and have to recover. Self-control acts the same way. Use it a lot and eventually it's too weak to help.

The ability you have to control yourself has long-term implications. In 1970 Walter Mischel started something now called the Stanford Marshmallow Test. It was a study on delayed gratification.

Dr. Mischel and his colleagues gave preschoolers a plate with a treat, like a marshmallow, pretzel or cookie. Then they would give the child a choice. The child was told the researcher had to leave for a few minutes. If the child waited until the researcher returned, they would get two treats. If they couldn't wait, they should ring a bell and the researcher would return immediately, but they could only eat the treat in front of them.

Over 600 children were tested in the experiment. A small percentage ate the treat right away. Of the ones who tried to wait, about a third were able to wait long enough to double their treats.

Several decades later, Dr. Mischel and a few of his colleagues wondered about the differences between those children that were able to wait, versus the ones who ate something right away. So they tracked down 59 of the subjects from the original test. The children were now all in their 40s and once again their willpower was tested in the laboratory.

Surprisingly, the willpower differences remained largely unchanged decades later. Children who were unable to wait, showed a similar lack of restraint when tested as adults. Even more significant; children with LOW self-control, grew into adults who had more health issues, lower levels of income and higher incidents of drug abuse and criminal convictions. A lack of willpower was a significant long-term handicap.

That doesn't mean if your willpower isn't good now, you'll never have enough self-control to accomplish your goals. You simply have to make it stronger. Like anything else, you get better with practice. Here are four ways to do it.

First, start eating on a regular schedule. Your brain uses glucose as an energy source. If you skip a meal or don't eat for long periods, your brain doesn't have as much fuel to function and self-control becomes impaired. Eating balanced meals regularly, say every three to four hours, keeps your brain fueled and helps you resist binge behavior.

Second, remove temptation. Since willpower diminishes over time, it's best to take away the things that tempt us. Only keep food in your house that's healthy. It takes a lot more effort to drive someplace and buy ice cream than to grab a pint out of your freezer. Don't keep indulgences around to tempt you.

Third, start working out. Stress increases the fight-or-flight response and steals energy from the areas of the brain used for rational decision-making. Stress also clouds our ability to focus on long-term goals. When we exercise, it strengthens the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain used for rational decision making. People who engage in physical fitness are less likely to act on impulses or temptations.

Finally, focus on one goal at a time. Don't make a list of 50 things you're going to change because it's overwhelming. Choose one thing for 60 days and make it a habit. Once it becomes part of your routine, move to the next thing.

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