Put your mind back to when you were four years old. Imagine a friendly grown-up sat you down, put a lovely sweetie or square of chocolate in front of you and told you you could eat it any time you liked. They then left the room, but not before telling you that if you managed not to touch the forbidden treat until they come back, you’d be allowed both that sweet and also a second one. The adult leaves the room and it’s just you and the sweet. What would you have done back then? What would you do now?
Fond though I am of the finer things in life, I’ve always prided myself on the strength of my will power. Okay, maybe not always, but I can resist that lump of chocolate in the fridge until after I’ve cooked and eaten my dinner. Sometimes. Depending on the day I’ve had – and provided it’s not calling out to me in the sweetest of voices (no pun intended).
Apparently, the degree of restraint that the four year old you could have exercised would tell a lot about the kind of adult you’ve become. And becoming aware of your level of self-restraint, at any age, could help you realise a variety of goals.
The Marshmallow Test was originally conducted by then Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel on hundreds of four year old children in California in the 1960s and is now considered to be one of the most successful behavioural experiments ever. During the test, the researcher put a marshmallow in front of each child and said they could eat it when he left the room. But if they could wait for 20 minutes to have it, he said he would give them a second marshmallow.
As you can imagine, the children reacted in a variety of ways. About a third grabbed the marshmallow and swallowed it whole before the door closed behind the researcher. Others seemed fixated on it, looking, smelling, touching but nonetheless holding back from eating it until the adult returned. Others would take steps to distract themselves by singing, walking around, listening by the door and so on.
It was not until 14 years later, when his earliest subjects were leaving school, that the psychologist began to confirm a correlation between the test results and success in life. When he caught up with those kids fourteen years on, his findings were quite dramatic. The children who had held out and been rewarded with the second marshmallow tended to be the most successful of the bunch academically and were considered more confident, persistent, self-assertive and built with a better capacity to cope with frustration.
The gang who had thrown caution to the wind, however and horsed the first marshmallow into them without waiting for the adult to return had a different overall profile, with many lacking in self-esteem and experiencing difficult relations with their peers.
Those interested in the work of Professor Mischel believe it is invaluable in identifying the part of the brain where temptation originates, as well as developing a better understanding of the need for gratification as a means to helping those with addiction problems. Given the spiraling rate of drug misuse in the region, the potential benefit of this could not be overstated.
That original group of children are now in their 40s and recently underwent brain scans, through which Professor Mischel hoped to develop strategies for improving self-control by comparing the brain activity of those who waited to eat the sweets and those who didn’t and identifying the parts of the brain involved in resisting temptation. Scientists say this simple strategy can be highly effective so, if any of you are struggling to lose a few pounds before stripping off those winter layers, read on.
According to the research, to resist temptation we have to shift activity away from the “hot” parts of our brain (the emotional and instinctual part of our brain present since birth) to the “cool” parts (the part that allows for self-control, goal-setting and willpower). Kind of like the angel and the devil on your respective shoulders, I suppose. So when you see that tub of Ben and Gerry’s or that heavenly fudge cake, the ‘hot’ part of your brain jumps with joy and screams at you to: ‘Grab A Spoon’. But instead of diving on it, you have to learn to activate your ‘cool’ side, by thinking about the longterm effects of indulging (a minute on the lips, but a lifetime on the hips and all that jazz) and instead visualise yourself on the beach in your bikini this summer, looking fabulous. Well if I’d known it was that easy…