Delayed gratification: marshmallows and mind control

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One such morning last week I listened to a podcast of Kim Hill’s interview with psychologist Professor Walter Mischel of Columbia University on Radio New Zealand National.

Mischel is a distinguished researcher in the area of personality. In the 1960s he was one of the originators of what is often referred to as ‘the marshmallow test’. Children aged about four years old had one marshmallow (or some similarly delectable confection of their choice) placed in front of them and were told that they could either eat that one marshmallow straight away or they could wait to eat it, usually about 15 minutes, in which case they would be given another marshmallow.

The point of all this was to examine the children’s ability to delay gratification for a bigger reward. Mischel continued to study the children into adulthood, and discovered that those children who could delay gratification, waiting the 15 minutes so they could have two marshmallows, instead of immediately having one, have generally become more successful than those who couldn’t.

Now, Generation Y tends to be all about instant gratification. We don’t expect to have to wait for anything, be it a reply to an email, a promotion at work, or a new dress. We want it all and we want it now.

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So this idea of waiting for something, of not taking that instant gratification that is right in front of you, is something that is quite foreign for many of us.

It’s a skill I think that I was never particularly good at. I always remember as a child being given I would eat all my Easter eggs in one day. It would often shock me when I would go to a friend’s house and in, say, June, she would still have a half-eaten Easter egg in the fridge.

Or when I was flatting at university, one of my flatmates would buy a packet of Toffee Pops and it would last her weeks. She would just have one occasionally. I would sometimes try to imitate her, and it would go well for maybe a day, or maybe an hour, and then I would mow through half the packet.

That these examples are to do with food is pertinent, but it’s certainly not the only area in which I have sometimes showed a lack of self-control. Some things I like to chalk up to experience, such as with my student loan – you could get a maximum of $1000 to spend on books or study accessories, and I would always get the maximum as a boost to my spending money, as $1000 right now was far more appealing than that delayed gratification of smaller loan in a few years’ time.

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Self-control, will power, self-discipline, delayed gratification, whatever moniker you like to give it, is something I have been working hard at trying to develop, and over the past year I have definitely managed to become better in regard to both money and food.

In August last year, around the time of my uncle’s funeral, I had something of a watershed moment and realised that I really needed to get serious about losing weight. I have struggled with my weight my entire life, and I’m only now fully comprehending that I always will – it’s a lifelong battle for me in the way that sobriety is for an alcoholic. I had spent many months indulging in home baking and pastries from the caff at work, and this, combined with a very sedentary job, resulted in me packing even more kilos on to my already well-endowed frame.

It is now over a year since that time, and I have lost 16 kilos (it was 17, but through a lack of that much vaunted self-control, I’m now back up one kilo). While there are many elements that go into weight loss – just as there are many for weight gain – there is a necessarily strong emphasis on delayed gratification.

I always think of my auntie’s mantra of ‘minutes on the lips, months on the hips’. You can either have that instant gratification of eating that brownie, or those hot chips or that Danish pastry, or you can resist it for the bigger reward, some time in the future, of losing weight, fitting into your skinny jeans, being healthier, living longer, feeling better about yourself.

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I’ve also managed to develop some self-control with regard to my spending. I’ve always been someone who loves shopping, loves spending, loves the finer things in life. Saving was something I only did for a very specific, short-term goal, like going on holiday

When I decided to move to London, I knew I would need to save for a considerable length of time, and that required further developing of that self-control. In the end, I didn’t end up moving to London, but I have continued saving. The original reason for saving may have disappeared or changed, but that self-control I developed hasn’t.

In the National Radio interview, Prof Mischel explains that delayed gratification is something that can be learned or developed with the right strategies and help.

Mischel used the example of retesting some children who had initially been bad at delayed gratification, but that if those same children were given a strategy to help them – such as the researcher suggesting that they visualise the marshmallow inside a picture frame – they would often be far better at delaying. When asked why they didn’t eat the marshmallow in the retest, the children would say, ‘Well, you can’t eat a picture.’ Mischel explains that those people who manage to delay gratification in the marshmallow test did so by the simple art of distraction.

I think there’s a lot to take from this for my own struggles with self-control. So much of it is about trying to strategise, to visualise, to keep yourself distracted from temptation.

And it’s also something that, like most things, the more you do it, the better you get. It’s like with saving – when you first start, it’s so difficult, because you’re used to getting that instant gratification. But the more you do it, the easier it becomes. In fact, it can even get to the point where it becomes difficult to spend money, even when you need to. I now weigh-up decisions a lot more carefully before I spend money or before I eat something indulgent, this has benefits, but it can become mentally taxing.

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There are some days when I decide that I’m going to get a piece of cake or something from the caff, but when I get there, I think about it so long that the desire passes – the moment for instant gratification has been and gone. Although I think the caff ladies must thing I’m slightly nutty, standing in front of the food cabinet silently deliberating the merits of a chocolate croissant.

I think developing my ability to delay gratification is definitely something that will help me with all aspects of my life. It just makes me slightly more contemplative about what my reasons are for doing something, for indulging, in whatever it may be. And that’s not to say I don’t indulge when it’s right (and sometimes when it’s wrong) like today I bought a $200 swimsuit. Gosh, writing that does make it seem indulgent. But I figured I deserved it. And I resisted buying a whole lot of other stuff, so we’ll call it even.

While I think the difference between how my weight loss in particular has gone is that other times I’ve tried to lose weight, it’s always been something that I’ve thought about being done over a short period of time – I just need an iron will for a few weeks or months and then I would get to where I want to be.

But that’s not really effecting change within my personality as I have done now. By doing it over a long period of time, I have actually changed my desires, changed my essential make-up, I think. So today when I decided that I should buy a chocolate bar, I ended up going into the dairy and looking at them, but really thought about whether I needed it, how I would feel without it, and I realised that I was fine without it. And so I walked home and tried on my bathing suit instead.

I’ve still got five kilos to lose to get to my goal weight, and still I think, ‘If I’m just really disciplined for the next few weeks or months, it will happen’ but it hasn’t happened yet. I don’t know if I’ll find that discipline to really make it, as the last few kilos are the hardest, but I do feel like I have changed my relationship with food, and with money, and that I have more faith in my ability to ensure a better future for myself, because being able to practise delayed gratification has wide ramifications.

In fact, in an article on the marshmallow test in the New Yorker, Mischel explains, “What we’re really measuring with the marshmallows isn’t will power or self-control. It’s much more important than that. This task forces kids to find a way to make the situation work for them. They want the second marshmallow, but how can they get it? We can’t control the world, but we can control how we think about it.”

The value of that goes beyond the ability to lose weight, to save money – it’s really about giving you control over your own reality.

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10 Comments

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10 responses to “Delayed gratification: marshmallows and mind control

  1. thetinkerbella

    This is a really interesting post. Well done, you – you’re looking so toned and skinny. I actually think you looked great before too, to be honest, but good on you for being so self-controlled. I really admire you.

    I’m really Gen Y in my decision-making, especially around food and exercise. When I want a treat, it’s all about the instant gratification, but at the same time, I’m thinking, ‘I really should drop a few kilos’, but it’s like I just compartmentalise eating and weight loss into two unrelated categories. And then when I look in the mirror and decide that I really have to do something, I start on whatever new plan I come up with, but if after a few weeks (or a few hours!) it hasn’t had instant results, I become demoralised and end up back in square one.

    I would have eaten the first marshmallow straight away. I was just the same as you with easter eggs too – I couldn’t understand how some people could make them last so long!

    I’ve made a few resolutions for 2010 recently – exercise more self control (with everything – money, food, life), use my brain more, exercise more and better, and to focus more on how I feel about myself and less on how I think other people think about me.

    • Wow, they are awesome resolutions!
      I particularly like the idea of exercising ‘better’. While I can’t be 100% sure what you mean by that for you, I think if I steal that as a resolution, it would be that I want to find some exercise that I find really fun. The stuff I do at the moment I enjoy in the sense that it makes me feel good afterwards, but I think it would be good to integrate more exercise into my life that I find really fun and social, like tennis or squash or dance or yoga, as then it wouldn’t be such a chore. I’ve been meaning to try a dance class for ages, but have been too scared, but I guess I should take another cue from your resolutions and not worry so much about what people think of me. I guess I could always call it research for my blog. lol

      • thetinkerbella

        Yeah, that’s basically what I meant too. I just want to do something that I enjoy and can sustain. And something that isn’t a chore and isn’t all about ‘getting fit’ or toning up, but something where that’s just a side effect and the main focus is that it’s something I enjoy. I’ll have to investigate my options!

  2. Chanel

    Great blog and interesting posts, keep up the good work (and well done for not caving into that chocolate croissant, I probably would have).

  3. I really like the pics you put in your posts. I usually don’t like marshmallows by themselves, but I wanted to eat those when I first saw them.

    Delayed gratification is one of the things I am good at, for the most part. I am the person who still Easter eggs in June, and it almost always takes me a couple of weeks at least to go through a tube of Pringles.

    I’m all about the saving (I freak out a little bit if my bank balance isn’t looking healthy), so I tend to over-analyse almost every purchase I make, unless I really really want it, in which case I will get it. But I always ask myself how much I want it, how much I need it, and then make my decision (it usually involves two or three trips back to the store to stare at the item. My black leather jacket? Took me a month of deliberation, at least).

    I do think I need to work on the exercising thing, though. I’m not fat, but I could do with toning up and I am also incredibly, incredibly unfit, and I do need to do something about that. Apparently the gym setting is not for me, and I don’t trust myself to do it on my own, because it will never happen, so I think I’ll need to find someone to drag me out of my house for a run or something. Maybe that can be my new year’s resolution – get more exercise.

    Btw, I also think you look really good and toned. 🙂

    • June

      Oh, and I don’t have a website. I filled in the wrong thing. lol

    • I’m so jealous of your self-control, June. That’s awesome you’re such a good saver as well. I was doing well, but then my trip to New York kind of made me lose my self-control in a way. I think it’s because somehow being on holiday doesn’t really feel like reality, and then it’s hard to get back in the zone when you get back, but I think I’m finally getting there.

      I’m sure having someone to exercise with would make it easier. It’s not something I’ve ever really done, but I guess it would be someone else to motivate you and you wouldn’t want to let them down.

      Oh, and I’m glad you like the pictures. It always seems to take ages for me to find what I want, so that’s good it’s worth the effort 🙂

  4. Gaynor

    Great post Ing.
    As you know I have had many battles with instant gratification and even after losing 55kg I still make very very bad food choices…my savings are nil and I shop far too much…
    The one thing I do seem to have got right is exercise and that is because after a horrid two week stay in hospital surrounded by incredible sick people, I realised that exercise is not a chore, but a priviledge afforded only to the reasonable healthy

    • That’s such a good way to look at it. It’s so good when you can completely change your view on something through the experiences you have. I guess since I’ve never been in hospital or had anything major wrong with me, I probably don’t appreciate a healthy body as much as I should. Thanks, Gaynor. I’ll really try to think of that each morning and just appreciate the fact that I *can* walk to work.

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