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How to Not Eat a Marshmallow (Willpower Part Two)

November 21, 2014


In last week’s post, we learned how Walter Mischel’s famous marshmallow test demonstrated that preschoolers with a willpower strategy fared much better later in life across a wide spectrum of circumstances than their counterparts who “ate the marshmallow.”


So are the marshmallow eaters among us doomed to a life of constantly giving into our temptations?


Not necessarily, says Mischel. Willpower, or more accurately, a strategy for maintaining one’s willpower, is a skill that can be developed and practiced at virtually any age.


The clues to building your own willpower system can be found in Stanford’s Bing Nursery preschoolers, who tested and proved many methods during the original marshmallow experiment. The next time you need to reach for some self-control, you might consider using one of the following as a template.



Out of sight, out of mind


Among the marshmallow resistors, pushing the marshmallow to the far end of the table and/or closing their eyes was a popular way to ramp down the emotional brain’s impulses. Our brains register all information through our senses; fewer sensory inputs means a reduction in cravings.


If you’re trying to eat healthier, stop the waiter before he even brings you the basket of freshly baked tortilla chips or wheels out the dessert cart. Make things easy on yourself.




Children in the experiment had a much better shot of holding out if the researcher asked them to use their hands to frame the marshmallow like a picture, rendering it unreal in their minds. 


One child was quoted as saying, “Well, you can’t eat a picture.” As silly as this may sound, he has a point. 


The craving is taking place, not in objective reality, but inside the confines of the emotional brain. Reframing can actually lower the potency of the chemical surge in the amygdala that urges one towards grabbing that marshmallow.




Here is a little more mental jujitsu at work. 


Our brains are designed to make snap judgements by storing a huge number of subconscious links between ideas or images. You can leverage this natural predisposition by imagining that a cockroach has, only moments before, been living inside the marshmallow, or that piece of chocolate cake was dropped on the bakery floor before it landed on the plate. Creating this false association can put a real damper on emotional desire.


The same principle explains why many college freshmen swear off of a particular food they happened to have consumed the first time they were sick from alcohol indulgence. You probably know someone who will readily testify how these associations can leave an indelible mark on food decisions for the rest of one’s life. 




In Mischel’s marshmallow test, some of the children made up clever games to distract themselves from eating the treat. 


What does not appear to work is to simply tell yourself that you’re not going to think about the marshmallow. It’s like that old joke, “Whatever you do, don’t think about a pink elephant.” Fixating on the order puts the image more firmly in your mind. The key is to get your mind on something else entirely.


In the end, the one thing that the two-marshmallow kids demonstrated was a strategy of some kind. Simple or goofy as they might seem, these same skills led to real-world benefits for the rest of their lives.



So the real question is, what’s your strategy for not eating the marshmallow?

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