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February. This is the time of year when, for many of us, our goals start to seem out of reach, unrealistic. We have wavered in keeping our New Year’s resolutions. So it is a perfect time to learn how to exercise and build our willpower. While some people appear to have more of it than others very early on, as we will describe, it is also possible to cultivate it.
A renowned piece of behavioral science research took place at Stanford University in 1972. The Washington Post describes it:
Stanford University’s Walter Mischel sat 600 children down at a table with a marshmallow and gave them a choice: They could eat one marshmallow now, or wait 15 minutes and get two marshmallows.
The kids struggled with temptation. About a third of them stuck it out and earned the second treat, says this New Yorker article that described the research in detail.
Better at life
Mischel followed the children through their lives, says Bloomberg Businessweek:
Tracking the kids over time, Mischel found that the ability to hold out in this seemingly trivial exercise had real and profound consequences. As they matured and became adults, the kids who had shown the ability to wait got better grades, were healthier, enjoyed greater professional success, and proved better at staying in relationships — even decades after they took the test. They were, in short, better at life.
Delaying gratification means enduring discomfort now for bigger payoffs later. Mastering it helps you study, train long hours, and commit to arduous projects. Impulse control also helps you pass up quick thrills, such as impulse shopping, to save for things that matter more — a home, training, education or financial security, for example.
In 2012, the Post says, researchers at the University of Rochester tinkered with the Stanford experiment. They found children’s willingness to wait for a treat also depended on whether the kids trusted the adults promising it. In other words, self-restraint can be withheld or deployed when it serves a rational purpose.
Scientists are still studying the original marshmallow children. If there is a genetic component to impulse control, they haven’t found it yet. But a good number of those who flunked the marshmallow test as kids show strong impulse control as adults, demonstrating that self-restraint can be learned.