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Learn Willpower Techniques From The Marshmallow Test

Back in the 1960s, a researcher learned a lot about willpower from studying hundreds of four-year-olds left alone in a room with a marshmallow or cookie. Here’s what the strong-willed ones had in common.

Photo by kato tomato.

The Columbia University studies, now known in collegiate circles as the “Marshmallow Tests,” sought to find a common element among the children who could resist giving into the most primal test of willpower—a sweet treat, left on a table for them, with (supposedly) nobody watching. The tykes were told that they could have two of the marshmallows or cookies if they waited until the researcher came back in the room. Many of them, naturally, gave out within minutes, or even seconds, but some waited as long as 20 minutes until the adult returned.

What powered the kids who could resist? The cruel/clever researcher, Walter Mischel, says it’s two things—distraction and different thinking. Here’s an explainer for the one most of us can take on:

Watch Mischel’s video of the children in the marshmallow studies and you will see a familiar set of behaviours. There is kicking of tables, there is singing of songs, there is counting of numbers and twirling of hair and many other variations on this theme. What the children are doing, says Mischel, is distracting themselves. Distraction, says Mischel, is actually a perfectly respectable away of exerting willpower. You simply shift your attention away whenever temptation crops up.

The other technique is a bit more self-help-styled. It involves re-focusing the mind on the long-term implications of the very short-term indulgence that’s just out of reach, whether that’s a pack of cigarettes, a blended mocha swirl, or surfing on over to a favourite web time waster.

Physical addiction and self-motivation play a strong role in any willpower test, but there is, it seems, a lot to learn from a four-year-old with some refined sugar in front of them. Hit the link to read more and hear NPR’s radio story, and tell us if your own kids have taught you anything about willpower in the comments. Willpower: A Game Of Strategy [NPR via The Food Times]


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