Marshmallows, Willpower and Context

Jul 17 2013

A couple of recent projects encouraged me to read up on some of the theory behind the psychology of willpower and instant gratification. Roy Baumeister has conducted many experiments on the topic and published Willpower last year, at the same time that a very interesting paper was published on the impact of the environment on willpower.Many people have heard of Walter Mischel’s famous experiments with children and marshmallows, which are some of the best known and most talked about experiments in psychology. In the experiments, Mischel took nursery school students and put them in a room (one by one) giving them a treat like a marshmallow or a cookie. He explained that they could eat the threat right away, or wait fifteen minutes until he returned and get an extra treat if they were able to wait (type “Marshmallow test” in Youtube to find some videos of these and similar experiments.

Mischel found that children’s ability to wait was strongly linked to future life outcomes, such as school grades, health, job prospects and relationship stability. The work has been extremely influential, hence its notoriety, and changed the way that educational psychologists think about learning - many studies have shown that self control can be even more important than intelligence in defining success.

Some of Mischel’s early experiments looked at the impact of background on performance in the test. For example, would a child from a single parent family be less willing to wait for a reward? Children with certain experiences are certainly less likely to ‘trust’ adults who ask them to wait.

Celeste Kidd repeated the work recently, but with a twist. Having worked in homeless shelters in her youth, she wondered if children use to less certain environments would be less willing to wait in a marshmallow test. This behaviour would not be because the children were ‘weak willed’ but because they had little reason to believe that adults would do what they promise to do.

She tested the effects of trust by priming a reliable or unreliable environment (through promising better papers and crayons in a first phase of the study). After this she ran the marshmallow test, in the same way as Walter Mischel had done, and found dramatic differences in the patience of the children. Nine out of 14 kids in a “reliable” condition were able to wait 15 minutes for a second marshmallow, and only one out of 14 kids in an “unreliable” condition. If kids were unsure that the second marshmallow was going to turn up, they had no reason to wait.

Interpretation of Mischel’s work has always focused on the grit, determination and patience that we need to show in order to be successful, as Roy Baumeister’s book does, but some of his early work did suggest that background played a role in shaping this. The fundamental attribution error should warn us that it is too easy to attribute behaviours to personal qualities and miss the role that situational factors play in shaping our choices.

Kidd’s experiment shows that patience and determination are also situational traits, and that patience is often a matter of being convinced that there is something worth waiting for. In a world where constant interruption and instant gratification, why would anyone believe that there is anything worth waiting for?

It would be interesting to run the same experiment on today’s adults as well as children. How many of us would wait 15 minutes before checking our mobile phones (again)?


Willpower: Why Self Control is the Secret of Success by Roy Baumeister

Rational Snacking by Kidd et al from Cognition, 2012

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