Self-control and the marshmallow test

Self-control and the marshmallow test

Self control is at the root of a lot of the issues that people come to me with – whether it’s eating or drinking to excess, or issues around anger or intrusive thoughts. But what do we really understand about self-control, and how can we improve it?

Research into self control began in the 1960s, with a Stanford University psychologist called Walter Mischel. He ran experiments where children were left alone with a marshmallow for fifteen minutes, with the promise that if they didn’t eat it that they would get two marshmallows. As you might expect some of the children gave in to temptation and ate the marshmallow, and some lasted out and received a second.

What Mischel did then was to follow these children through their school and their working lives as they grew older. He found that those who had exhibited self control did better at school than those who had given in to temptation. This positive effect then followed them through their lives as well – they were more likely to get good jobs and less likely to find themselves in trouble with the law or involved with drink or drugs. There was also an indication from Mischel’s work that self control was as much a learned behaviour as an inherited characteristic, opening up the possibility that people with low self control could learn to improve it.

Later explanations of self control still support the idea that it can be learnt, but also point to a fundamental problem for people who want to exercise more self control – the idea that it is a finite resource.

The explanation for the limit on self control is an idea called “ego depletion”. Broadly speaking ego depletion is any activity or circumstance – such as concentration or fatigue – that results in low mental energy. This will have the effect of making later tasks much more difficult, and so self control in one area can adversely impact self control later on, even in a completely unrelated task.

The impact of earlier self control has been demonstrated many times in different experiments. For instance a group of people are randomly assigned to two different groups. Both are asked to watch a comedy but whilst one group are free to laugh the other are told that they must not. Both groups are then asked to complete a challenging mental puzzle, and what is seen is that the group who had to exercise self control about their laughter consistently become more frustrated and give up sooner than the group who were free to laugh.

This model of self control clearly has implications for dieters. Long term dieters, or those who start a number of different diets, constantly make a conscious effort to resist carvings or temptation. That this is subject to ego depletion will be obvious from any experience of trying to resist unhealthy or high calorie food whilst tired, after a sustained period of self-denial, or a period of intense concentration or emotion. Non-dieters are not subject to the same effect, even in the same circumstances, because they are not exercising conscious self-control over their eating.

Whilst this might appear to make dieting even harder it actually points the way to a more sustainable approach, which is to redraw your relationship with food. All the time that you look on it as something to be resisted or indulged you will be using self control, and will be subject to the issues that go with that and ego depletion. Instead if you can learn to think of food differently, and for many people that means separating it from ideas of reward or reassurance, then it ceases to need controlling in the same way.

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