Just over 40 years ago, a psychologist and Stanford University professor called Walter Mischel Ph.D, conducted a series of experiments to test willpower and self-control. The study became known as the “marshmallow test.” Mischel and his colleagues presented a group of preschool children with a plate containing a marshmallow, or other similar teat; they then left the room for 15 minutes. Before they left, each child was given some simple choices: they could eat the marshmallow right away, or wait until the researcher returned and they could then have two marshmallows. If the child really could not resist waiting, they could ring a bell and the researcher would return immediately, the child would only be allowed the one marshmallow. Some of the kids ate the treat straight way, others tortured in front of the sugary delight.
When Mischel revisited the marshmallow test subjects as adolescents, he found out that those teenagers who had waited longer for the marshmallow as preschoolers did better in examination scores. Their parents also rated them as having a greater ability in planning, handling stress, responding to reason, and generally having greater self-control during frustrating situations. Generally, they were doing better in life than the group that ate the marshmallow right away.
Of the 200 children that participated in this initial experiment, 59 were tracked down at later stages in their life, now in their 40s, they took part in another study conducted by B.J. Casey Ph.D. of Weill Medical College. The researchers tested their willpower and self-control as adults. Amazingly, the subjects’ willpower held up over the four decades. In general the children who were less successful in resisting the marshmallows did less well in self-control tasks as adults. This also showed up in the brain scan results. When presented with tempting stimuli, individuals with low self-control showed different brain patterns than those with high self-self control. The pre-frontal cortex (a region that controls the logic of making choices) was more active in subjects with higher self-control. The subjects with lower self-control showed boosted activity in the ventral striatum (an area that process desires and rewards.)
The science is showing us that there is a “hot-and-cool” system to explain why willpower succeeds or fails. The cool system is cognitive in nature. Essentially a thinking system that incorporates knowledge, feelings, actions and goals – it reminds you why you should not eat the marshmallow, not right away that is. The hot system is responsible for quick, impulsive, emotional reactions – tasting or even eating that marshmallow without considering the long-term implications. When our willpower is failing it is the hot system that gains the upper hand leading to impulsive actions. Perhaps there is some truth in the saying: “short term pain, long term gain, short term gain, long term pain!”