The Shortfalls of Willpower


Chances are you’ve heard of the Marshmallow experiment.

In the 1970s, a group of researchers led by Walter Mischel at Stanford sat preschoolers down with a marshmallow in front of them. The kids were told they could eat the treat now, or, if they waited until the researcher returned a few minutes later, they could have two. It was a test of delayed gratification. Mischel and colleagues followed the kids for years and found that those who could resist the temptation of the marshmallow had better SAT scores, lower BMI’s, and higher levels of adult achievement decades down the line.

More recently, this study has sparked a deluge of youtube and TikTok videos of parents putting their children through the test. This means that all of us can get a front-row seat the experiment.

In his recent book Hidden Potential, Adam Grant discusses watching the DIY experiments on social media. “When I first watched the videos of the marshmallow test, I was expecting to see a subset of kids with superior willpower,” writes Grant.  “What I saw instead was a subset of kids creating ways to remove the need for willpower altogether.”

When we talk about this experiment, we usually see it through the lens of innate ability. The kid either has willpower or he doesn’t. But it turns out the experiment probably has less to do with innate willpower and more to do with HOW a child is resisting the treat and what coping skills he is using. This is important because coping skills can be taught.

Take a moment to watch some of the recent videos of kids taking the test. A few kids get locked-in on the marshmallow, placing all of their attention on it, holding it, squishing it, licking it, nibbling it, and so on. Others go away from it by distracting themselves, covering their eyes, putting their heads down, dancing, and talking. In short, different kids use different strategies to varying degrees of success.

It’s not just the modern videos. Let’s turn to the original research. Follow up work in the 1970s found that when kids were given a distraction or told to think about something else during the experiment, they waited longer. In the chart below, kids in group A were given a slinky to play with, kids in group B they were told to think of fun things to do (i.e. sing a song), and kids in group C were given no instructions or distractions. In other words, give kids a strategy and they resist the temptation to eat the treat. You’re able to transform a child into a willpower king or queen just by encouraging simple ways to deal with the discomfort.

In another study, researchers found that thinking of fun things (A) beat thinking of sad things (B) and focusing on the treat (C). Still other research found that when kids covered the treat with a tin can, waiting time skyrocketed. The point is that when given appropriate skills or guidance, kids delayed gratification.

I can’t help but think of this research through the lens of resilience and toughness. A major premises of my book Do Hard Things is that there is no single way to deal with discomfort. Toughness results from having a diverse set of tools. Sometimes you need to bare down and focus, other times you need to shift your attention to the crowd. Sometimes positive self-talk works, other times you need a more critical inner voice to get yourself back on track. Some strategies work better than others, but ultimately all strategies fail at certain junctures.

In the book I outlined research showing that elite marathoners flexibly cycle through strategies. They go from internal to external, distraction to focused, being present to zooming out, and so on. Novice runners, on the other hand, pick one strategy and stick with it. Sometimes they get lucky and their chosen strategy works for a while. But ultimately it fails, and without other tools, they succumb to the stress of the moment.

Fortunately, we can train coping skills.

When I tracked the focus of collegiate and professional athletes during their workouts, I found that when left to their own devices, they defaulted to particular coping strategies. They got really good at utilizing a handful of ways to work through their discomfort. But when I changed the dynamics and gave them new strategies to practice, they expanded their ways to cope.

The marshmallow test isn’t too dissimilar. Watch the videos again and you’ll see some kids cycle through strategies, putting their head down on the table, then dancing, then tapping the table, and so on. Other kids deploy only a single strategy. The latter group seems to struggle more.

The main take away here seems to be that navigating discomfort is less about willpower and more about applying a diverse array of coping strategies and tools. Fortunately, these strategies and tools are not innate; they can be taught and learned, and at any age. That’s a good thing for all of us, particularly in a world with marshmallow-like food and content everywhere.

— Steve

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