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Yuichi Shoda is quoted in this Right as Rain article on self-control

Can You Teach Yourself to Have More Self-Control?


Let’s say someone offers you a cute cashmere sweater. You’d be pretty stoked, right?

Then this sweater giver shows you another cute sweater and says that you can have both of them. OK, make that double stoked.

But wait, there’s a catch.

That person needs to leave and take care of something first. If you can wait until the giver gets back, then you can have both sweaters. But if you wait and wait and just don’t want to wait anymore, you can summon the person back sooner — and only keep one sweater.

Would you be happy with just one cute cashmere sweater? Or would you hunker down for who knows how long and hold out for two?

The marshmallow test

If this hypothetical situation sounds familiar, that’s because it’s a well-known scenario set up by late psychologist Walter Mischel and his team in the 1960s and 1970s. This work laid the foundation for modern research about self-control and willpower.

In Mischel’s experiment, later known by its popularized moniker the marshmallow test , researchers tested delay of gratification in a group of preschoolers. They used small prizes like marshmallows (hence the nickname) and even poker chips as the reward.

Sometimes researchers covered the reward so it was out of sight. Other times they encouraged the kids to think of a fun memory or imagine the marshmallows were something else. Each time, they noted which techniques helped kids wait longer and which ones didn’t.

The larger implications of the marshmallow test came more than a decade later, when Mischel and his team connected with the original test subjects again in high school. Though there was a lot of variation in the follow-up findings, on average, children who were able to wait longer in the original test also rated better than their impatient peers on important life skills like concentration and stress management. Even their SAT scores were generally superior.

Now back to our own hypothetical marshmallow test — the cute cashmere sweater test, if you will. Are you the proud new owner of two imaginary sweaters, or did you cave and settle for just one?

If you caved, don’t worry. Your future isn’t doomed, despite what you might think based on Mischel’s follow-up study of the high schoolers.

Several of the preschoolers who waited the entire time during the marshmallow test actually rated poorly in high school, and some subjects who couldn’t wait as children ended up being high performers as teenagers.

“People’s ability to self-control depends a whole lot on external circumstances and, more importantly, the mental strategies people use,” says Yuichi Shoda, Ph.D ., a professor in the University of Washington Department of Psychology who worked with Mischel and has co-authored several studies on the subject.

What Shoda means is that your ability to exert self-control in everyday situations shouldn’t necessarily be thought of as a result of your willpower. It’s actually about understanding your personal limitations and knowing which techniques to use to help you overcome them.

In essence, self-control is a behavior that you can learn and practice.

“People are sometimes able to control their behavior and sometimes they can’t,” Shoda explains. “The important question is: what’s different about the times when you were able to?”

Read the entire article here .