How to Pass the Marshmallow Test

3 Oct

Have you heard of the marshmallow test? Psychologist Walter Mischel placed a single marhsmallow in front of 4 and 5 year olds. The kids were told they could eat the marshmallow, but if they waited, the researcher gave them a second.  The test measured willpower and self-control in a fairly literal way – it put something of huge temptation in front of the children and then told them not to give in.

Only 30% of the children succeeded in resisting the marshmallow.  That gooey fluff ball was just too enticing.  You could see the grimaces on their faces as they were attempting to avoid eating it–they poked it, licked it, or just bit off a very tiny piece in their attempts to wait.  They knew waiting was the better choice.  But they just couldn’t help themselves.

We all face marshmallow tests each day, and we fail a lot of them.  Do you ever use your cell phone when driving?  I do.  Stop lights are just so BORING, one little email check (one little taste of the marshmallow) won’t really hurt.

Have you ever cheated on a test?  I have.  I didn’t know the answer, the other paper was right there, and I swear to god my eyes just moved on their own.  It’s like a tractor beam pulled them over to the side.

We know all of these things are bad choices when we do them, but our willpower falls flat shockingly quickly.

What makes these scenarios very difficult is that the temptation to do wrong is right in front of us.  We have to exert a lot of mental energy to keep on the straight narrow.  There’s a common misconception that willpower is somehow connected to virtue, that our ability to will ourselves to do what’s right shows how worthy we are (which must go all the way back to our puritan-work-ethic-predestination days.)  Research has actually shown us over and over that willpower is a limited resource, it’s like a muscle that gets tired over time.  So it’s actually a bit of self sabotage to put temptation right in front of us and then try to avoid it.

Children who did succeed at the marshmallow test used some creative strategies. Some hid their eyes in their hands. Some turned their chairs around so they were no longer facing the mallow. These children instinctively knew that trying to do right simply through the force of willpower was extremely difficult. Far easier to lessen the strain of the task, by providing distraction or creating a barrier between you and whatever it is you don’t want to be doing.

Adults do this too, sometimes in strange ways.  Ever seen someone pour water and salt on their desert in a restaurant?  It looks disgusting, but it’s a way to reduce the need for willpower.  So is giving that food to your friend instead, or asking the waiter to box up half of it during the meal before you start eating.

It’s also important to note that stress is in direct competition with willpower–the more stressed we are, the harder it is to find our self-control.  So the last place we want to have to exert self-control is when we’re frazzled or anxious.  That’s why it’s tough to avoid those m&m’s in front of you while you’re working towards a tough deadline, or to have a difficult conversation with your spouse in a calm, rational manner, after the baby’s been up all night screaming.

Similarly, if we put a child in a stressful situation, it’s hard for them to have the willpower to do right.  For example, when we pass out a difficult test and then say, “don’t look at your neighbor’s paper,” we’ve just created a situation that requires extra discipline and self-control.

We can lesson the need for willpower through simple physical steps.  I don’t use my phone while driving when it’s in my purse, on the floor of the car, out of sight and hard to get to.  Bringing gym clothes in the car, so I don’t have to go home and then will myself to go out again, helps lesson the amount of willpower I need to exercise.

Privacy dividers lower the mental strain on students of not cheating.  Now that it’s not only sheer force of will stopping them from seeing their neighbor’s answers, students can spend more of their energy thinking about their work.

We’ll all fail the marshmallow test at some point.  But we can set ourselves up for more success if we create conditions that lower the amount of self-control we need in a situation, so that we slide into the better choice rather than hauling ourselves, painful step after painful step, there.

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