The marshmallow test is probably the most famous experiment that examined the effects self-control had on people’s lives. In the experiment, children are placed in a room with a single treat (a marshmallow or cookie for example) and told if they can manage not to eat the treat for fifteen minutes, they will be given two treats to eat. If they give in, however, they only get the treat in front of them.
It’s a tough choice, and the experiment, set up 50 years ago by Walter Mischel, tracked children who participated in the experiment through their lives. Children who managed to exert some self restraint turned out to do better in school, go on to earn more money and had lower BMI scores. The ability to delay gratification seems to be a fantastic indicator of what type of person you will become.
Self control, will power, grit, determination. Whatever you call it, if you can master it, you’ve got it made. So how do you go about it? Well our actions are controlled by two often opposed parts of ourselves – the limbic system (which enjoy immediate gratification) and the prefrontal cortex (which is the more cool calculating part of our personality). The key, it seems, is to train the prefrontal cortex to take precedent, to give us a few seconds to fully analyse our decisions. This is simply a matter of practice and the best way to do it is to start with simple “if” statements. So, you program yourself to respond by deciding “If it’s a Monday or a Tuesday, I won’t have any wine”. Telling yourself this and subsequently practising it on Monday and Tuesday evenings when you’ve had a tough day and really want a glass of wine to relax, eventually trains you to analyse your decisions. Eventually you can discern when a decision is simply because your limbic system has gone into overdrive and when you have calmly decided for yourself.
However, as with anything, we walk a fine line – too much self control is as bad as too little – finding the balance is the key.