Update: check out this YouTube video - about 2:55 in, the cute kid videos start.

Can you increase your willpower? Can high levels of willpower lead to greater success in life?

Columbia University psychologist Walter Mischel says yes. In the 1960s, Mischel used hundreds of 4-year-olds to answer these questions in what is now referred to as the marshmallow test.

The ability to wait for gratification is considered a personality trait important for success later in life, and may even be a component of emotional intelligence. Those without this personality trait need their gratification instantly and suffer from poor impulse control.

Mischel put a 4-year-old in a room alone with a marshmallow on a table and told the child he was going to leave the room. The child then had two options: one, eat the marshmallow immediately (indicative of poor impulse control, or low levels of willpower), or two, wait until he returned (indicative of good impulse control, or high levels of will power), and receive an additional marshmallow as a reward.

As you might imagine, some of the kids gobbled up the marshmallow right away. Some actually waited for Mischel to return. Mischel says the videotapes of the children alone in the room with the marshmallow demonstrate two common ways to resist an impulse - and which one could actually be used to help children and adults improve their willpower. Using these strategies could be a powerful tool in helping addicts resist temptation.


What were the two strategies? One, distraction - kids squirmed, sang songs, counted out loud, and many other variations on this theme, according to the NPR interview. Mischel said this is a perfectly acceptable way to resist temptation - distract yourself, and shift attention away from the tempting situation.

Two, change the way you think about the temptation. Mischel called this thinking about the temptation in a "cold, cognitive" way. People often respond to temptations emotionally, or in a "hot" way. Marshmallow = delicious morsel, feelings of pleasure. But if you can train yourself to think about a temptation in a cold cognitive way, you can resist it. Mischel told the children to visualize the marshmallow as a cotton puff or cloud - and it worked. The children could wait longer. For an adult, perhaps visualizing the long-term consequences of his/her actions - lung cancer, money, secondary health effects on their children - may delay the desire for a cigarette, for example, and help a person quit smoking.

Long-term outcomes

The original sample of children were followed, and the results were clear: children with better impulse control were more successful in life: higher SAT scores, enrollment in better colleges, were more dependable (survey of parents and teachers). Children who couldn't delay gratification were more likely to become bullies, had worse parent/teacher evaluations, and even were more likely to have drug problems when surveyed at age 32.

A 2006 article in the San Francisco Chronicle suggested these results should be considered by policymakers when they are trying to work through issues like improving education and reducing poverty. "Somehow we've entered a world in which we obsess over structural reforms and standardized tests, but skirt around the moral and psychological traits that are at the heart of actual success," David Brooks writes.

You can increase your willpower, and there are a number of methods out there (if you have the willpower to find them). While many focus on mental exercises, one study even suggested physical exercise could help.

Want to know the strategies you take to seek gratification? Check out this survey by the Central Michigan University Psychology Department - learn about yourself, help science, and maybe even win $100!