Sometimes a web video can be a great prescription for clients, and can illustrate a principle that would otherwise remain vague and overly intellectual.
|The adult marshmallow?|
In the 1960’s Walter Mischel, a psychologist at Stanford, conducted his famous marshmallow study on the ability to delay gratification. Children were brought into a room, given a marshmallow on a plate, and told that they were free to eat it or wait until the experimenter returned, at which point they would be given two. Predictably, some children held out and others didn’t.
Test subjects were followed up years later. Successful delayers were found to be rated by parents as more competent, to have higher SAT scores, and to meet other markers of life success more often than nondelayers. Some evidence has linked delayers to having greater activity in the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain associated with the inhibition of emotional impulse (to grossly oversimplify, the part of the brain responsible for “I want to but I won’t”).
The question, of course, is whether the test simply reveals an inborn trait or capacity, or whether the ability to delay gratification can be trained. The evidence here is scantier, but it seems likely that children can be taught to over-ride at least some of their temptations. Providing children with regular chores, for example, seems to give children useful practice at inhibition (“I really want to play, but I’ll make my bed first and then go”).
Inhibition has a bad name lately. We’re supposed to “go with the flow” (presumably, the flow of other’s example, or of our own temptations) or “follow our passion” (only do it if you really want to). It’s widely believed in our culture that success at difficult tasks is a product of innate passion and talent rather than self-discipline.
Yet even in creative fields such as art, writing, and composing, discipline appears to be as important as ability. Indeed, if the 10,000 Hour Rule (a rule-of-thumb principle which states that expertise in most fields is accrued by extended practice, not primarily by talent) is correct, then discipline may be more important than native ability.
The route out of many psychological difficulties similarly involves the capacity to over-ride impulses. Most anxiety-related conditions bring with them an intense desire to avoid. Treatment (particularly exposure-based therapies) typically involves recognizing the desire to avoid but over-riding and approaching instead. Depression brings a desire for withdrawal and isolation; recovery generally involves pushing oneself outward bit by bit. Virtually all addiction problems involve giving in to gradually accumulating desire; recovery is to a great extent about learning to over-ride. Parenting, coping with long-term relationships, achieving life goals, getting through school: at some level almost every concern involves coping with and often resisting momentary temptation.
How can we introduce a discussion of this idea with clients? Ideally we would want to do so in a fun and preferably entertaining way that makes the issue a humanity-wide one (“we all find this difficult”) rather than an individualistic (“I’m just bad and undisciplined”) manner.
One way is to discuss the Marshmallow Test in session, then to invite clients to go and view some videos of the test on YouTube. Here’s a reasonable one that gives some of the background theory as well:
Here’s a parody that transposes adult actors for children, suggesting that as adults the principle also applies:
Or just suggest your client do a search on The Marshmallow Test. They'll find it.
Problem: I don’t like marshmallows.
Neither do I. You could fill my office with them and there’d be the same number an hour later. But imagine that we update the test with something else:
- Chocolate covered almonds.
- Google News.
- Inappropriate sex partners.
- Internet pornography.
- Online gambling.
You’ll know your client well enough to come up with something they might find difficult to resist.
Clients often feel quite judgmental of themselves for having difficulties, and may exhibit a knee-jerk tendency to do so in response to learning of the Marshmallow Test. “Look, I don’t have the self-control that that four-year-old has!”
This, of course, is not our point. None of us has perfect self-control, and accumulated habits have greater degrees of temptation associated with them, often overwhelming our abilities to inhibit impulses. Gaining control will involve developing the habit and “exercising the muscle” of self-control in a particular area where we have difficulty.
So the next thing to do is to self-disclose. What’s a variation on the Marshmallow Test that you would fail, and what did you do about it?
Once upon a time, one of mine was computer solitaire. I’d have a few moments and think I’d pass them with a game, then an hour later I’d “wake up” having played perhaps a dozen. In this case my solution was stimulus control: I reduced the availability of the game by deleting it from my computer.
That may not sound much like learning to resist eating marshmallows – it’s more like solving the problem by not having any marshmallows around. Good. It’s often useful to reveal our own frailties. (Eventually, by the way, I stopped deleting it from new computers and, despite this, no longer play any computer games. Except on iPad. Damn you, Angry Birds.)
Then invite the client to contemplate whether they have any “marshmallows” in their own life. Frame it as a Marshmallow Test. “So if I gave you a bottle of Jack Daniels and told you that if you brought it back next week with the seal unbroken I’d give you a second bottle, that might be difficult?”
At this point we can begin working on strategy – even making reference to the ones the children use in the videos. Getting involved in something else, looking away, staring at the marshmallow to build resolve – whatever might be helpful in dealing with the current concern.
Want some more behavioral strategies for working with inertia, self-discipline, and low mood? PsychologySalon has developed a cognitive behavioral guide to self-care for depression. Though not a substitute for professional face-to-face care, UnDoing Depression may be a useful adjunct to your efforts. The preview is below. For this and other courses, visit psychologysalon.teachable.com.
We also have courses for professionals and for the public entitled What Is Depression, What Causes Depression, Diagnosing Depression, Cognitive Behavioral Group Treatment of Depression, How to Buy Happiness, and Breathing Made Easy.