Dealing with Impulsivity

In the 1970’s Stanford Psychologist Walter Mischel developed an interesting study on delayed gratification using small children as his subjects.

In a quiet room devoid of any distractions, each child of approximately four years old, was shown two marshmallows and given two options: if they could wait while the experimenter departed the room for about 15 minutes and returned, they could have both marshmallows, but if they wanted one marshmallow immediately they could have it.

This exercise, based on a choice between one small but immediate reward, or two small rewards if they waited for a period of time, showed some interesting results. The children who were prepared to wait for the two marshmallows distracted themselves to reduce the frustration of waiting by variously covering their eyes with their hands, resting their heads on their arms, some sang to themselves and others tried to fall asleep.

The test was followed up by research into the lives of the children who took the test as they grew up and became adults. The children who resisted eating the one marshmallow and were prepared to wait for the two marshmallows tended to have better life outcomes as measured by SAT scores, educational attainment and body mass index.

In adolescence and into adulthood, the children that waited to have both marshmallows were observed as socially competent, personally effective and self-assertive. They were able to cope better with frustrations, put their ideas into words, concentrate better and use and respond to reason. They were also able to make plans and follow through on them, were eager to continually learn and were less likely to freeze under pressure. As adults these children embraced challenges and pursued their goals in the face of difficulties. They became self-reliant, confident and dependable adults that were not afraid to take initiative.

On the other hand, the children that immediately chose to eat one marshmallow, struggled as adolescents and adults. They shied away from social contacts, became stubborn and indecisive, got easily upset by frustrations and had lower self-esteem than their test counterparts. Often, these subjects were immobilized by stress and became mistrustful and resentful when they felt they were not getting enough. Prone to jealousy and envy, these subjects often overreacted to irritations with a sharp temper and often provoked arguments and fights amongst their peers.

The results of this test showed that not thinking about the reward enhances the ability to delay gratification, rather than focus sing on the future reward. Since all emotions lead to an impulse to act, we can understand how difficult it is to restrain oneself, especially if the reward is so close and attainable, albeit only half a reward.

Delaying gratification is a key characteristic that needs to be developed to increase self-control. Focussing on the journey one has to take to get to a reward, rather than what awaits us when we do get there, is the key to developing self-control and enjoying the time in between. Indeed, the ability to deny impulse in the pursuit of a goal is the secret to achieving that goal!