[This post is part of a series on willpower and how to understand and use it. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]
The ability to use willpower helps you more than you think. Much more.
Most of us think about willpower helping us to avoid eating too much chocolate cake, to go to the gym, to quit smoking, and the like. New Year’s resolution type stuff. It helps with such things, but it helps a lot more than that.
The problem is what we also associate willpower with — giving in to the chocolate cake, sitting on the couch instead of going to the gym, smoking, and so on after trying to exert willpower.
The Stanford marshmallow experiment was a study on deferred gratification conducted in 1972 by psychologist Walter Mischel of Stanford University. A marshmallow was offered to each child. If the child could resist eating the marshmallow, he was promised two instead of one. The scientists analyzed how long each child resisted the temptation of eating the marshmallow, and whether or not doing so had an effect on their future success. Although the experiment has been repeated many times since, the original study at Stanford has been considered “one of the most successful behavioural experiments”.
That study found
- The marshmallow experiment suggests the most important quality for determining success isn’t intelligence or talent but the ability to delay gratification. Children who were able to put up with temporary discomfort in exchange for a future reward are now more successful in almost every measurable way. (source)
- Those who waited for a second marshmallow turned out to be more socially competent, self-assertive and academically successful. (source)
- The boys and girls who waited even scored an average of 210 points more in their school exams [SATs] than those who didn’t. (source)
The New Yorker reported a researcher who conducted a similar experiment found
that the ability to delay gratification—eighth graders were given a choice between a dollar right away or two dollars the following week—was a far better predictor of academic performance than I.Q. She said that her study shows that “intelligence is really important, but it’s still not as important as self-control.”
This study revealed something that predicted success in almost every measurable way, social competency, self-assertiveness, and academic success?
What can we do with these results?
What makes the results interesting is what we can do with them. I said the experiment was about self-control and willpower too glibly.
“What we’re really measuring with the marshmallows isn’t will power or self-control,” Mischel says. “It’s much more important than that. This task forces kids to find a way to make the situation work for them. They want the second marshmallow, but how can they get it? We can’t control the world, but we can control how we think about it.”
How can we put ourselves in the small fraction of people whose ability to control how we think about the world creates success?
Typically, academic studies just show patterns. I’m concerned with how to use those patterns to improve your life. The next few posts show how to use willpower and self-control to improve your life.
Because if you learn how to avoid temptation when you want, you will have learned the same skills to create the world you want for yourself in life.
Next: an overview on this series of posts
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