The New York Times published an interesting article on 9-14-14 about a psychologist who has researched self control for children, and his advice for adults who want to improve their self control. The psychologist, Walter Mischel, Ph.D., has done famous research with children using marshmallows, and is now, for better or worse, as “the marshmallow man.” To summarize his research very briefly, he found that how 5-year-olds who were offered a marshmallow but told that they needed to resist eating it for a while responded to this test predicted their self control abilities.
In other words, young children who were able to restrain themselves from immediately eating their marshmallow tended to grow into adults with more ability to use self control to “delay gratification.” The children who tended to be more impulsive, and to be unable to restrain themselves from eating their marshmallow, tended to grow into adults who had more problems with impulsive behaviors.
The article provides a nice summary of the details of Dr. Mischel’s research, including some info about how he used further research to tease out the cognitive strategies that the more successful children used to cope with the temptation to eat their marshmallow prematurely.
Dr. Mischel has a non-academic book coming out , “The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self Control.” He finds that children who are more impulsive at age 5 are not doomed to be impulsive adults, and the article notes, “Self control can be taught. Grown-ups can use it to tackle the burning issues” of their live, and among the examples listed is eating less and eating more wisely. Extrapolating from the successful strategies used by the 5-year-olds with better self control, Dr. Mischel recommends use of distraction and distancing. From the article: “Don’t eye the basket of bread: just take it off the table.” And, “In moments of emotional distress, imagine that you are viewing yourself from the outside, or consider what someone else would do in your place.” Or- this one may not be for everyone-, “When a waiter offers chocolate mouse, imagine that a cockroach has just crawled across it.”
The article goes on to discuss the neurology of self control, and how we can learn to, in effect, activate the self control part of our brains when facing situations that stimulate our more impulsive brain functions.
Overall, I found this article to be an informative summary of some interesting research and what it can offer people working on self control
The NYT article may be accessed online.
Richard Sethre, Psy.D., L.P.