I think I stopped eating the marshmallow
Ever heard of the famous Stanford University Marshmallow experiment? Just in case you haven’t, it took place in the 60s and involved Professor Walter Mischel leaving small children – around four years old – alone in a room with a single marshmallow.
“I’m going to go away for 15 minutes,” he would say. “If the marshmallow is still here when I get back, you get a second one.” The kids were secretly filmed.
Two out of three kids ate the marshmallow within the 15 minutes. Some held out almost the whole time, others had it in their sticky fists before the door was closed.
Doesn’t sound like a big deal. What if they were hungry? What if they only wanted one marshmallow? What if they didn’t trust they’d get a second?
Well, turns out, it’s not about the marshmallow.
The team went back and caught up with all those kids 15 years later. They discovered that that one kid in three who held out for the second marshmallow had ended up with “better life outcomes” – higher education levels, better grades, better BMIs, better relationships – than the other two of three.
In his TED talk, motivational speaker and author Joachim de Posada says the ability to say no to the first marshmallow is the “single most important principle for success: the ability to delay gratification. Self-discipline.”
I am pretty confident I would have eaten the marshmallow, probably within seconds. Because I’ve never had much self-discipline. I’ve always gotten good grades and had a healthy BMI and good relationships in my life…except with money. And sometimes cigarettes. And sometimes other things.
My mindset has always been: “But what if I died tomorrow?” Then I would never have been able to enjoy that new piece of clothing, that cigarette, those fries. And it’s good to have a vice, isn’t it? Everyone has one. And it’s not like I’m honking away on a crack pipe each evening.
But once you eat the marshmallow, you want another one. You want the second one. Except it’s too late. The money from next month, well, you already spent that last month. You’re tired this morning? That’s because you chose to stay up really late last night. You wanna watch Breaking Bad? Well there’s none left because you watched 247 episodes in one weekend. Your bonus? You already spent it three times.
And really, the chances are good that I won’t die tomorrow. We can never know for sure, but the chances are good.
So recently I’ve found myself thinking: “What if I live tomorrow?” Then it makes more sense to wait out for the second treat. To delay gratification. To learn to save. To learn not to indulge. To spread the enjoyment out. But how?
Then I read this New Yorker article from 2009, where journalist Jonah Lehrer went back and spoke to Mischel about his famous marshmallow experiments. Mischel said some interesting things.
He noted similar behaviours in all the kids who could wait. They would cover their eyes, turn their backs on the marshmallow, sing songs to divert their attention, even hide under the table itself. They were all doing the same thing. Moving the marshmallow OUT of the centre of their focus. They were able to distract themselves, and stop thinking about the “hot stimulus” of the marshmallow.
It also turns out that he could pretty reliably predict which kids would eat the marshmallow from the age of around 18 months. He would temporarily separate kids from their mothers. Some would completely lose their shit – the ones who would eat the marshmallow. Others would sing to themselves, play with toys whatever – they would distract themselves so they would not think about their missing mothers. When he tested the same kids several years later, the mother separation test was basically foolproof in picking the quick marshmallow eaters.
So does that mean the desire for instant gratification is born into us? Into me?
Apparently, thankfully, not.
When Mischel taught the kids simple shortcuts – such as pretending the marshmallow was only a picture of one and not real – this dramatically increased their ability to resist. The article also mentions another experimenter, John Jonides, who was working on conducting the equivalent tests in adults – sans marshmallows. He was on the brink of proving through MRIs that the same part of the brain responsible for self-control is the part used for directed attention.
So, self-control is just about directed attention. Focus.
At the time of the article, they were trying to figure out the best ways to introduce this concept – to really teach kids the skills they need to control themselves and to delay gratification – at certain schools. I’ve got more research to do. But according to both experimenters, metacognition – or thinking about thinking – is one of the best ways to outsmart yourself when you are sinking in to your desires.
And I think that is what I have somehow started doing. About 36 years late, but hey, I’m hopefully going to live another 36! I seem to have learned to just keep my thoughts away from the stimulus, instead of staring, poking and scratching at it like I might have done before. It’s what I was doing when I unsubscribed from all those newsletters, emptied my online wish lists and changed my internet preferences on ads.
I’ve noticed other small changes since I closed my purse. Like those above, but also more recently around other areas of my life. Like, each day I bring my lunch to work along with enough snacks to last the day. Previously, I ate all the snacks about an hour after arriving, and ended up starved by mid-afternoon. I don’t think my diet was premium either, so my blood sugar was crashing a lot and I couldn’t hold out once I thought about eating.
Now, I am not even bringing snacks. It’s so weird but in the space of just a week or two, I have discovered that if I only eat real food, and eliminate grains and most sugar, I can actually get by on my (admittedly huge) breakfast, a big lunch, and maybe a cup of tea, piece of fruit and some nuts mid-afternoon. I’m still working out, so it’s not like my body needs less energy. And I still eat a LOT. I’m just not grazing the whole damn day. And my blood sugar isn’t crashing. It’s a miracle.
When I think about it, it’s also about focus and directed attention. I am suuuper busy at work and don’t have as much time to think about food. A combination of changing my behaviour a bit and keeping my mind off food seems to be working. Now I need to harness it for the other areas of my life. I’m just going to keep this in mind, and take it one day at a time. But I thought I would share this discovery.
And in very good news for me, there are a group of kids who failed the marshmallow test, but turned themselves into “high-delaying adults”. These are the ones Mischel said he would study next. “These”, he says, “are the most interesting.”