Marshmallows, Lemonade and How to Build Up Your Willpower

Whether it is to wake up that extra bit earlier in the morning, to keep your temper, or to avoid that great looking croissant that’s staring you out on the coffee shop counter, we all exercise our willpower daily.

It’s one of the things we may often battle with and wonder in frustration how to conquer. Some people simply seem to have more willpower than others. Where does it come from? The idea that some people are born with a fixed amount of willpower has been proven false. Willpower, as I will describe in this post, is more like a moral muscle that has to be exercised and becomes stronger with use, but can also be depleted.

Self-control may actually be the most important element when it comes to predicting success in life, and may even have more importance than intelligence.

The Marshmallow Study is a classic example of this. At a nursery on the Stanford University Campus, children of ages three to five partook in the experiment.  During the study, each child was taken into a room by a researcher, where a marshmallow was placed on a table. Each child was told that if he/she waited 15 minutes before eating this marshmallow, they could have another marshmallow.

Marshmallow dilemmas...
Marshmallow dilemmas…

Most children struggled to resist the treat and waited for an average of three minutes before eating the marshmallow. Other children stared directly at the marshmallow before eating it approximately 30 seconds later. However, out of the 653 subjects tested, 30% delayed gratification and waited until the researcher returned 15 minutes later to be rewarded with their second marshmallow.

What is interesting about this study is that over ten years later, a survey was sent out to the parents, teachers and academic tutors of these same participants. It was found that the children who had less willpower in the Marshmallow Task were less academically successful than those who delayed gratification. They also seemed more likely to have behavioural problems, often had difficulties paying attention, and could not easily maintain friendships. In contrast, those who wrestled with their temptations, but found a way to resist the marshmallow for 15 minutes were found to be better adjusted and more dependable. Fascinatingly, these subjects had S.A.T. scores on average, 210 points higher than those of the children who only waited 30 seconds before eating the marshmallow. The Marshmallow Task turns out to be a better predictor of S.A.T. scores than IQ tests!

What can we learn from this? Why did some children wait and not others?

It appears that self-control did not depend on how badly the children wanted to eat the marshmallow, but on their ability to think about something else in order to deal with their ‘hot emotions’.

Children were observed behind a one-way mirror during the study: those who delayed gratification were seen to distract themselves, for example by singing songs, pretending the marshmallow was not a marshmallow, or playing hide and seek under the table. Their desire was not eradicated, but simply forgotten.

Walter Mischel, who conducted the experiment, argues that intelligence is largely dependent on self-control; “if you can deal with ‘hot emotions’, you can study for exams instead of watching television…even the smartest children still need to do their homework.”

 So what can you do to build up your self-control and to become a master of your own free will?

In another study (Baumeister, 1998), students were given a page from an advanced statistics textbook and had to cross out the letter ‘e’ each time it appeared. They then had to watch a video of an unchanging table and wall. After circling ‘e’s, people were less willing to watch the boring video. This seems like an obvious outcome of carrying out the first activity, but the result importantly highlights that performing one task that requires self-control can reduce the amount of time willingly spent on a second task. Studies of this sort have led to the idea that willpower is a finite resource. We each have a limited budget of willpower, and should spend it wisely.

In this sense, it can be counterproductive to work towards multiple goals at once. Concentrating your effort on fewer goals at a time increases the odds of success for all of them.

As with a muscle, you can train your willpower and it can become stronger with use. Even small day-to-day acts of self-control can lead to a considerable increase in willpower capacity in other completely unrelated areas. For example, one study has shown that people who used their non-dominant hand to brush their teeth for two weeks were better able to stick to a diet or exercise regime!

In addition, it has been found that people who start to incorporate exercise into their lifestyle twice a week for two months, notice that they have greater self-control over other habits, reporting a reduction in spending impulses, drinking alcohol, smoking and watching television.

On the other hand, activities that deplete willpower include resisting food or drinks, taking exams, suppressing emotional responses, trying to impress someone, as well as stress, tiredness and lack of sleep.

If willpower can be depleted like a muscle, what is being depleted?

The answer to this question has not yet been determined, but there are some speculations, one of which is that exerting self-control lowers blood sugar. For example, drinking a glass of lemonade prior to a starting a complex (and indeed impossible) puzzle increased the amount of time people spent before giving up on the puzzle. Interestingly, when the lemonade was given with an artificial sweetener instead of sugar, this increase in persistence did not occur. The calories in sugar appear to have a quality that that is sufficient to restore performance in the short-term. [However, increasing blood-sugar can take you only so far, and would prove useless when starting a diet :s]

How does this ‘training-effect’ work?

Training will take you far - Johnny agrees!
Training will take you far – Johnny agrees!

The answer may lie in brain plasticity. In short, this is when brain structures change in response to experience (more on this in future posts!). If someone’s willpower capacities change, these changes must reflect some biological change in the brain. Neural activity in the form of exercising self-control may drive the rearrangement, or increase the efficiency of particular neural circuits, which may in turn cause the build up of willpower. However, this is largely speculative, and more research into this area is needed to affirm this hypothesis.

🙂  I hope you enjoyed reading my first post. Now go work those willpower abs!

Some articles which you may find interesting if you liked this post:



3 Comments Add yours

  1. Charlie says:

    Nice post. Now, I’m going to stare at some marshmellows for 15 minutes 🙂


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