Almost 50 years ago, psychologist Walter Mischel sat five-year-old children down at a table and gave them a simple choice: they could eat one marshmallow now, or two marshmallows later.
The experiment was about self control, trying to discover personality types that displayed more self control to those who wanted instant gratification. I wonder if todays generation would do differently on this experiment, as we now live in a very immediate society. Apparently not!
These experiments generated all sorts of fascinating findings, but they became famous because of something remarkable that happened years later: on average, the kids who could wait longer for another marshmallow were found to have higher SAT scores and got along better with others, used drugs less as young adults, and even had lower body mass index 30 years later at the outset of middle age. Waiting for two marshmallows turned out to be really, really important to some!
Many assumed this meant that our fate was predetermined and the results were based on genetic predisposition but we now know that genes actually interact with the dynamic environment one grows up and lives in. What we now know if that self-control is a learned behaviour and everyone has the skills to regulate their emotions and develop, even as an adult emotional intelligence. In the face of addiction or addictive behaviour, emotional intelligence is a valuable tool.
Avoiding temptation is a smart way to build self control, as you see in this video a modern day marshmallow test the children that pushed the marshmallow away, didn’t look at it or think about it did better than those who did. There is a constant battle in the brain between instant and delayed gratification and an executive control in the brain that can focus the attention on the future, its found in the pre-frontal cortex.
During what some scientists call “hot” thinking we find fast decisions based on impulse driven limbic system are in contrast to “cool” thinking generated from the rationally driven executive function. Remembering this is a helpful way to understand how your brain works! During many psychological experiments evidence has shown that exposure to the sight, smell, or taste of a temptation activate the sort of short-term “hot” thinking that make us most likely to give in to it. Note these exposures are all sensory.
Distraction is a helpful tool, when children were told to conjure up a memory prior to the experiment the success rate of them waiting for the second marshmallow was increased ten times! Doing or thinking about something else entirely while giving up an addiction is a helpful strategy for moving forward and quelling “hot” thinking impulses.
NLP is another tool that can transform your perspective, it is great for visual or tactile thinkers, here you create a new mental image of the temptation, was that is not as appealing and your brain will respond differently to it, if you practice this long enough you can really turn the addiction around and take control back. For example, instead of a drug being a fantastic high, pretend it’s a poison, how you think about it makes a huge difference in cooling your desire for it.
If it is a drug addiction that your trying to avoid there are all kind of implications with quitting, including bio-chemical changes that will seek to keep you in the cycle of addiction just to feel normal, and unfortunately for addicts the pay offs of using are always reduced because the body no matter how you administer the drug or what dose you take, eventually the body will evolve and the drug will decrease in its effectiveness.
Goals and plans certainly help keep you on track for living without these temptations, a plan for when you make it to this day is helpful, experiments show people with plans and goals are more likely to succeed at avoiding temptations. Articulating targeted plans on the areas of life we want to exert self control over makes a huge differnce and reducing stress with your goals is a a good strategy to achieve them.
Learning to to be able to control our negative emotions is an important key, meditation and mindfulness is a practice that can neutralise and give space to such emotional conditions along with creative thinking about triggers.
Its important to remember that the marshmallow test was not a fixed predetermined measure for success but rather it uncovered a personality trait that can be developed and a a clear definable strategy for changing your environmental circumstance, even as an adult to greatly improve your ability to maximise your future.