A now classic psychology experiment from the late 1960s demonstrated that four-year-old children who were able to delay the gratification of eating a marshmallow became more successful in later years than children who could not exercise as much self-control. In an update of the research on this topic, Jonah Lehrer (writing in The New Yorker recently) quotes the original researcher and many others discussing how we learn to control our brains when it comes to resisting temptation and applying ourselves to a task (such as controlling what we eat or exercising more).
The marshmallow researcher, Walter Mischel, says, “Once you realize that willpower is just a matter of learning how to control your attention and thoughts, you can really begin to increase it.”
Teaching children (and adults) simple ways to master their thoughts and behavior (through “strategic allocation of attention”) may be a crucial ingredient in increasing success in many activities. For example, the children who were successful in resisting the marshmallow temptation
distracted themselves by covering their eyes, pretending to play hide-and-seek underneath the desk, or singing songs from “Sesame Street.” Their desire wasn’t defeated—it was merely forgotten. “If you’re thinking about the marshmallow and how delicious it is, then you’re going to eat it,” Mischel says. “The key is to avoid thinking about it in the first place.”
Mischel and other researchers are very interested in studying the people who have become “high-delaying adults” (exercising self-control) even though, as children, they failed the marshmallow test.
Some researchers (e.g., John Jonides at University of Michigan, and others) are focusing on the exact locations and functions in the brain associated with self-control and delay of gratification:
Yale University researchers found that delaying gratification involves an area of the brain, the anterior prefrontal cortex, that is known to be involved in abstract problem-solving and keeping track of goals. … The brain scan findings from 103 subjects suggest that delaying gratification involves the ability to imagine a future event clearly, said Jeremy Gray, a Yale psychology professor and coauthor of the study in the September  edition of the journal Psychological Science. You need “a sort of ‘far-sightedness,’ to put it in a single word,” he said. [reference]
Mischel, the original marshmallow researcher, adds:
The key to delaying gratification may lie in the ability to “cool the hot stimulus,” he said in a telephone interview.
Over and over, research is showing that the trick is to shift activity from “hot,” more primitive areas deep in the brain to “cool,” more rational areas mainly in the higher centers of the brain, he said.
There are many ways to cool a hot stimulus, said Mischel, who is president of the Association for Psychological Science. Say you are determined to resist the chocolate cake at a restaurant. You must distract yourself from the waiter’s dessert tray. You can also focus on long-term consequences and make them “hot” – by vividly imagining your future tummy and hip bulges – or think of the cake in the cooler abstract, as a thing that will make you fat and clog your arteries.
In the marshmallow test, he said, “the same child who can’t wait a minute if they’re thinking about how yummy and chewy the marshmallow is can wait for 20 minutes if they’re thinking of the marshmallow as being puffy like a cotton ball or like a cloud floating in the sky.” [reference]
A large-scale study is now underway, involving hundreds of schoolchildren in Philadelphia, Seattle, and New York City, to see if self-control skills can be taught.
- watch a brief video of the marshmallow test;
- listen to a Public Radio discussion of the New Yorker article (45 min.);
- check out sayyestono.org, an organization devoted to increasing self-discipline in children;
- read the article in The New Yorker and this Boston Globe article.
- in one recent study, obese women were found to have less ability to delay gratification than obese men and normal-weight people.