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.
When we set ourselves goals, we know that willpower is going to come into play at some stage of the process. Enthusiasm can fire us into action initially but when the going gets tough willpower may be the make or break of achieving a dream or goal. So is willpower something that we are born with or can it be developed to help us work towards positive change?
Marshmallows reveal a lot about willpower
Psychologist, 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 instructed that they could have a marshmallow straight away or they could wait a mere fifteen minutes and be rewarded with two marshmallows. 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. The second group of children waited a while longer but 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.
The effects of willpower thirty years on
What makes Meschel’s research even more interesting is that he was able to re-visit the children from the study almost three decades later. Now in their thirties, Meschel discovered something fascinating about the children. The group who waited the full fifteen minutes were significantly healthier, more successful and more law abiding than the group of children who ate the marshmallow straight away. Meschel and his team 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.
It’s clear from this study that our level of cognitive control or willpower is a big factor in our ability to achieve our dreams and goals. Even though Meschel’s test involved the small task of waiting fifteen minutes to gain an extra marshmallow, it demonstrates that 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.
3 tips to develop willpower
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:
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 so you can remind yourself of the important reasons you have chosen to make this change.
2. Prevent distraction and avoid being drawn back towards temptation.
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, 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.
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.
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.
So the next time you are presented with a small decision that provides the option to exercise your cognitive control, seize the moment and regard it as an opportunity to strengthen your willpower.