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Tuesday 25 September 2012

Resources: The Marshmallow Test

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.
  • Beer.
  • Chips.
  • Cigarettes.
  • 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.

Then what?

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.

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  1. I think there are alternative interpretations of the results of the Marshmallow test (MT), especially as it comes to individual applications by a particular person.

    For one, the MT involves that one trusts that the reward promised for a later time, will in fact come.
    That can be quite a big trust, too big for some people to maintain, so they go for whatever is immediately available.
    It is not uncommon for people with trust issues to not do so well in life.

    For two, the items used in the MT test tend to be such that the person may crave, but also believes them to be unwholesome.
    It makes sense (kind of, given the conditions of the MT) to consume one craved but unwholesome item if this effectively stops one from consuming two.

    Also, a person may be intuitively driven to "hit rock bottom" - ie. to prove to themselves that something they crave is not good for them, by deliberately consuming it or engaging in it.
    For example, I saw I had an unwholesome craving for watching a particular sitcom, and I couldn't stop myself watching it. So I deliberately watched it for so long that I became disgusted with it, lost interest and didn't watch it anymore.

  2. I agree that all three of these effects may operate and muddy the waters of the Marshmallow Effect, though some may imply more sophistication than we might expect of 5 year olds. In the post I shamelessly extrapolate to adult behaviour and here I think the factors you mention are more likely to operate. If eating this slice of pizza can prevent the next pizza from being delivered, then we can see it as something of a dieting strategy. All research protocols attempt to get at an underlying construct and none cut to the bone perfectly.

    I think of the MT as a metaphor as much as it is a finding. The immediately available temptation often outweighs future gains for all of us. I want to eat the cheesecake and there it is, right in front of me. My other goal of eventually losing weight seems rather abstract and distant by comparison - less potent a temptation - and I give in to the immediate opportunity rather than holding out for the future.

    The same effect is relevant in virtually every major project: the distant goal of completion competes with the immediate goal of work avoidance. The key to getting things done, balancing one's budget, writing that book, finishing that course, maintaining that relationship - and more - often comes down to how effective we are at resisting the immediate temptation in favour of the larger goal.

    Thanks for your addition to the discussion!

  3. Thank you for your reply.

    Like they succintly say in Buddhism -
    "If by renouncing a lesser happiness one may realize a greater happiness, let the wise man renounce the lesser, having regard for the greater." (Dhammapada, ch. 21/verse 290)

    Of course, this is just common sense.

    What makes the difference between the traditional Buddhist outlook and an ordinary person's search for happiness/meaning/satisfaction, is that those Buddhists are contextualizing their efforts in an all-pervading, all-encompassing "big picture", the Big Goal, namely, enlightenment, a complete, permanent cessation of suffering; while the ordinary person is trying to find happiness/meaning/satisfaction in things for which one consciously or at least intuitively knows do not bring any real or lasting happiness/meaning/satisfaction.
    Sure, things like work, relationships, hobbies, health, a good reputation, food and art do bring some happiness/meaning/satisfaction, but I doubt many people can honestly say they are as good as they hoped they would be.

    I think this is why, in the absence of a real big picture (such as the traditional Buddhist one), it can be so hard to make an effort to accomplish things, as there is that nagging thought in the back of one's mind that even if one did all those things, got a degree, worked hard, ate right, etc. etc., it would all still ultimately be less than really satisfying.

    I just read this today somewhere: "A misbehaving child is a discouraged child."

    I think this is what misbehavior in adults (such as failing the Marshmallow Test) can be about - discouragement. Discouragement on a deep, existential level that well-meaning anti-procrastination advice doesn't touch.

    (I'm not a Buddhist, but I do envy them their Big Picture.)

  4. Discouragement is certainly one factor, particularly in depressed states. "Even if I do everything right, somehow it still won't work out."

    Another factor is like the intolerance of uncertainty. "I'm not GUARANTEED to be better off if I quit smoking. What if I'm one of those who won't get any ill health effects? And what if I go to all that effort and then get hit by a bus tomorrow?"

    Virtually everything we do is unreliable in terms of future effects. We sit, in effect, at an extra-large craps table playing the odds. Demographers tell me I'm likely to live into retirement, so perhaps I'd better save. Physicians tell me that a diet of pizza is generally bad for people, so perhaps I'll work on my diet.

    Even Buddhists - and I know a great many of them - aren't completely certain of the outcome of their practice. Meditate all you like and you can still be hit by the same bus. Even if you aren't you probably won't reach full enlightenment, at least in this life, and who knows if the idea of future lives is valid? We place the best bets we can and let what happens happen. Sometimes it pays off, sometimes not.

    One source of discouragement is expectation, and the overly optimistic messages we give children can be part of the problem. "If you try, you will succeed." "You can be anything you set your mind to." "Good intentions will always pay off." These are lovely ideas - but in their certainty they are all false. Being led to expect a just, predictable, benevolent world can set expectations unreasonably high - and the threshold for discouragement perilously low.

  5. There is the idea that the aim of psychotherapy is to help people overcome their neurotic unhappiness and to become ordinarily unhappy.

    How do you view that?

  6. Nice question. Let's turn it into a post.

  7. Just found this:


    It's common sense.