The marshmallow test and how to flex the willpower muscle

There exists a quaint parallel between one of the most significant discoveries in the field of physics with that of the field of psychology; the role played by humble food items. While it was the apple that is famously said to have assisted Sir Isaac Newton in his discovery of the Universal Law of Gravitation, it was the Marshmallow that would help Walter Mischel open the door to the significance of self-control in relation to our lives. Mischel’s Marshmallow Test tested 4 to 6 year olds with a delectable dilemma; you may have one marshmallow now or two marshmallows in fifteen minutes.

Following these children up more than a decade later, Mischel found the children who had been able to resist devouring the single marshmallow were rated as more competent by their primary care givers. A couple of years after that, Mischel also found that they scored significantly higher in their SATs. The ability to delay gratification rests upon our self-control faculties. Self-control strength has since been found to be significantly related to a wide range of desirable life outcome measures including academic achievement, physical health, psychological wellbeing, avoiding criminality, better relationships with peers and family, and salary attainment, among others.

Muslims are instructed to maintain their self-control around the year but one time in which it is particularly important is during the month of fasting; Ramadan is a month in which Muslims undergo a significant work out for their self-control faculties. This article outlines some reflections from psychological research into the area of self-control worth considering for anyone facing a trying period of self-control, be it a fast, an attempt to move away from an unwanted habit or an attempt to establish a desired one.

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One of the prominent theories about self-control is ‘The Strength Model,’ championed by Roy Baumeister and his colleagues. This theory proposes that willpower, the underlying force that facilitates for self-control, is akin to a muscle. Like a muscle’s strength, willpower strength can be improved. Like a muscle, willpower can be exhausted. Like an exhausted muscle, exhausted willpower can be replenished. Having been characterised in this way, researchers have then been able to devise ways in which willpower strength is replenished, as well as ways in which overall willpower capacity can be increased.

In terms of replenishing strength in the here and now, eating something that contains glucose has been found to assist in recovering one’s willpower for re-use. A less predictable way to recover our self-control strength is by laughing at something funny. Researchers from across three American universities found that individuals who had exhausted their willpower had it restored a lot more quickly if they watched a humorous video, as opposed to watching a sad video or no video at all. This study also found that receiving a surprise gift, small in a material sense, seemingly helped people to recover their willpower too. The power of positivity rears its head once again. The next time you find yourself faltering while trying to overcome a bad habit, treat yourself some fruit or other glucose-rich food, a good comedy or if you’re really struggling, surprise yourself with a welcome gift.

Researchers have referred to this state of willpower exhaustion as “ego-depletion.” Knowing that our self-control faculties can be exhausted can help us ready ourselves to tackle any self-control task. For starters, we should not overbear our willpower with too many demands at once. Researchers have found that people who try to quit smoking at the same time as dieting are more likely to return to smoking than people who are only focused on smoking. I can testify to the use of not being too restrictive in other aspects of your life while trying to change one deeply seeded habit. I allowed myself extra freedom in terms of diet while I was overcoming my cigarette addiction. Lungs are ultimately much more important than abs, or so I kept telling myself as I devoured some fantastic food.

As with weights training, in which exhaustion of the muscle ultimately leads to an increase in strength, size and endurance, tasks that might evoke ego-depletion in the short term seemingly increase our willpower capacity in the long run. Utilizing our willpower helps us develop our willpower strength. One such study simply asked participants to ensure that they pronounced their “yes” and “no” correctly, rather than saying “yea” or “na,” for two weeks. Another study asked university students to engage in a tailored financial management program for four months. As well as the expected improvement to the latter group of participants spending habits, the researchers also reported that they were consuming less nicotine and caffeine, managing their emotions better, carrying out more chores and spending more time studying too. The authors of this study also reported in another study carried out in the same year (2004) that self-control exercises, this time by way of physical activity, lead participants to reduce their intake of nicotine, alcohol and caffeine, eating less junk food, improvements in their emotional control and a reduction in their impulsive spending.

These are but some examples from a growing body of scientific literature that have shown that focusing on improving willpower in one aspect of our behaviour readily transfers into other areas that are believed to be dependent on our self-control faculties. Whether it is fasting for Ramadan or engaging with a new diet, strengthening our willpower seems to be fruitful and worthwhile endeavor. It may yield positive results in a wide range of areas of our lives. Be mindful of ego-depletion; do not overbear your willpower by asking too much of it at once. Being kind to yourself by allowing yourself a treat or a laugh is not just a humane thing to do; it can go some way towards restoring our willpower strength and keeping us on the path to positive change.

by Tamim Mobayed