It’s too hard, just don’t bother

I was just reading Walter Mischel’s book on Willpower, The Marshmallow Test. He’s the one who invented the test and they also did loads of work on how children could increase or decrease their waiting times (it wan’t always a literal marshmallow, but that’s the shorthand he uses).

I’ll outline the test here. The child is seated in an empty, dull room, In front of them is the marshmallow to resist and the two marshmallows they can get if they do resist. To get the single marshmallow now they have to ring a bell to call back the researcher and they’ve been shown the researcher will return the second they ring the bell.

Then they did all kinds of variations to see what would help or hinder willpower. Obviously putting the marshmallows out of sight helped, but another experiment showed that is only obvious for older kids, if you asked the medium kids they thought it would help to be looking at them (it didn’t) and the little kids didn’t understand the question. The sweetest story was a little girl who worked so hard to resist the one cookie to get two, that she then didn’t eat those two at all, but waited even longer to take them home to show her mum what she’d achieved. Further experiments did indeed show that if we reframe the temptation (including literally putting a frame around it and pretending it’s a picture) it can help.

Mischell also discusses how temptation can be modified by your motivation. This part is reassuring as he questions Tierneys experiments that show willpower is depletable and depends on blood sugar. He argues that their students were just bored by the second willpower test, and that if we believe willpower is depletable it is more depletable than if we believe it is an infinite (like Gretchen Rubin’s short story about horseshoes bringing luck even if you don’t believe in them).

The example Mischel gives from his own life was the one that surprised me most. He got symptoms went to the doctor, was diagnosed with celiacs and given a pill. That seemed odd as I didn’t know there was a pill for it. Months later he found out in the library (before the days of google and wikipedia) that celiacs was caused by gluten intolerance. Asking his doctor why he didn’t tell him the cause and why he didn’t just give up gluten the doctor replied, Nobody has the self-control needed to stay on a gluten-free diet in a gluten-filled world, so there was no point talking about it (the pill could alleviate the symptoms a bit but had it’s own, possibly serious, side-effects). Needless to say plenty of people, including Mischel, manage this nowadays. They resist temptation by the cognitive reframing that makes gluten a poison (helped a lot by the fairly immediate crippling stomach pains).

It was quite surprising that the doctor had such low expectations of what the patient could achieve, naturally if you don’t even try, you will achieve even less. And I think this shows that we can achieve much bigger changes than you might think as long as you are convinced enough.

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