What can marshmallows reveal about your willpower when it comes to goals? Yes, we know, seemingly nothing much. When you set yourself a new goal, you can bet that willpower, grit and determination will be key components. Enthusiasm can get you started but what happens when the going gets tough? Willpower makes or breaks your dream or goal. But is willpower something that we are born with or can it be developed to help us work towards positive change? We take a look at an iconic marshmallow experiment all about cognitive control (you’ve got to love science that uses marshmallows), three steps to help you develop your willpower along with evidence from the world of neuroscience to help you reach your goal.
Marshmallows & willpower
One of our favourite Psychologists, Walter Meschel, carried out a longitudinal study focusing on cognitive control (or willpower) with 1,037 children born in one year of the 1970s. The research took place in the beautiful city of Dunedin on New Zealand’s South Island. Each child was given a variety of tests to complete, the most famous of which was the legendary marshmallow test.
In the marshmallow test the children were told that they could go for that marshmallow straight away, yup, right now (yum) or they could wait a mere fifteen minutes and be rewarded with not one but two marshmallows (sounds like a good deal to us). Meschel found the results of the test divided the children into three groups. The first group was comprised of children who ate the marshmallow on the spot and who can blame them? The second group of children waited a while longer but the marshmallow got the better of them, they couldn’t resist temptation for the full fifteen minutes and the third group waited the full quarter of an hour before receiving their two marshmallows. Full marks to them. So what? you quite rightly ask, kids like sweets. Fast forward 30 years on and Mescal went back to see how the same children were doing. The results were eye opening.
The effects of willpower thirty years on
Meschel was able to re-visit the children from the 1970s study almost three decades later. Now in their thirties, he discovered something quite astounding about the children. The children who waited the full fifteen minutes were significantly healthier, more successful and more law abiding than the group of children who chowed down on the marshmallow straight away. Meschel and his team of researchers took these results and factored for social class and IQ. They found that the level of willpower the children had at an early age was a greater predictor of financial success than either IQ or social class. Their willpower had helped them to successfully achieve their goals.
It’s clear from this study that our level of cognitive control or willpower is a huge differentiator in our ability to achieve our dreams and goals. On the surface, Meschel’s test involved the seemingly insignificant task of waiting fifteen minutes to gain an extra marshmallow. Over the years the marshmallow test has been replicated and we laugh at the videos of children trying to wait out that 15 minutes or styling out the ‘disappearance’ of the marshmallow (one of our favourite’s is Philip Zimbardo’s The Time Paradox video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xNvvL9j_SIs ) but behind the humour lies something more serious. The everyday decisions we make to resist temptation can build or deplete our capacity to manage challenge or temptation when bigger decisions present themselves over a longer period. If you were the sort of kid who went straight for the marshmallow don’t be disheartened.
3 tips to develop willpower
Rest easy. The good news is that we are all able to develop our level of willpower. Meschel describes three sub-types of cognitive control that are required to successfully use willpower and overcome instant gratification. This is his take on training your brain for willpower. Once you’ve mastered these 3 tips you’ll be well on your way to achieving your goals.
1. Voluntarily remove your focus from the object of desire.
The fact that you are choosing to remove your focus away from temptation is important here. Think about your motivation for resisting and make sure that it’s powerful enough to fire your determination. Write down your main motivations and keep them close to hand (have them as notes on your phone, written in a notebook or on display somewhere) so you can remind yourself of the important reasons you have chosen to make this change.
2. Prevent distraction
Draw up a list of activities that you know will be effective in helping you to avoid distraction. The list should contain activities you enjoy, some may have been successful strategies in the past for avoiding temptation. Examples could be meeting with friends, reading, playing an instrument, dancing, walking, engaging in a favourite exercise, listening to music, playing with a pet, focusing on a hobby. The list should contain plenty of activities that you find fun or challenging in some way. It’s worth thinking about what the activities might be in advance of your goal so that you have a ‘go to’ list to keep you on track.
3. Focus on the future goal and imagine how good it will feel when the goal is achieved.
This future focus is essential to ensure willpower remains strong. Visualise every aspect of achieving your goal, how it will look and feel and the benefits for you and those around you. Imagine that you are looking through a camera lens, make the colours really bright and the picture as big as you can.
Neuroscience & Willpower
Small steps can make a big difference. Research from neuroscientists, including that of Richard J. Davidson, has demonstrated that we are able to develop our level of cognitive control through any activity that prompts us to stop and focus before resisting temptation and concentrating our focus elsewhere. Just making the decision to resist instant gratification and waiting moves our brain processes into the pre-frontal cortex, activating the brain centres required for cognitive control. This means that even the smallest of steps to exercise willpower will have a big impact in the long term by developing the brain circuitry responsible for cognitive control. The take away message? Make that list to prevent distraction a long one.
The next time you’re presented with a small decision that provides the option to rewire your brain & build your cognitive control muscles, grab it. It’s an opportunity to strengthen your willpower.
If you’re interested in finding out more about achieving your goals or making positive changes check out our free resources including our Growth Mindset Toolkit https://planetpositivechange.com/growth-mindset-toolkit/ to help you on your way. If you decide you’d like to try coaching, we can work with you to help you get there. Check out our sessions here https://planetpositivechange.com/growth-mindset-toolkit/
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Image courtesy of the fabulous Unsplash and Jessica Ruscello.