In the last article we looked at how a bunch of kids were able to resist the lure of a marshmallow, and played with the idea that willpower may be nothing more than obedience. There is, however, another interesting aspect of the marshmallow study:
“One of the most striking delay strategies used by some subjects was exceedingly simple and effective. These children seemed to facilitate their waiting by converting the aversive waiting situation into a more pleasant non-waiting one. They devised elaborate self-distraction techniques through which they spent their time psychologically doing something (almost anything) other than waiting.”
These kids did everything they could to avoid discomfort and temptation. Instead of focusing on not being tempted by the marshmallow, they found other distractions so they were no longer waiting, they were doing something else. Now that is some serious willpower, but at what cost? What would have happened if the second marshmallow didn’t materialise? How many times can someone use this amount of mental energy before they give up?
Overall, there is a ton of value in the study and essentially the message seems to be that self-control brings greater rewards, at least when the rewards are clearly defined and there is confidence they will arrive. Wait – a belief that something better is on the way as a consequence of a behaviour – this sounds like hope, not willpower. People can hold out for a long time when there is hope, and so can rats (more on that subject here). This is essentially high emotional intelligence and self-awareness. Kids who were able to understand their own desires and control them were able to manage their behaviours in order to gain greater reward.
Here are the three takeaways for today:
1 – Not waiting while waiting is highly effective. Disney use a FastPass for this. People don’t mind waiting 2 hours for a popular ride when they can have fun instead of standing around.
2 – The ability to resist temptation in order to gain a greater reward is inherent in humanity. It’s the basis of most religions.
3 – Willpower requires faith. There is a faith that the outcome will be as expected, and a trust that the world will be trustworthy. This takes us to the earliest stages of human development.
Given the option, the person who has faith will pick the better thing later rather than settle for something lesser. Is this how come kids who can wait for the second marshmallow are less likely to experience divorce? They waited for the something better instead of settling? Is willpower really obedience, or is it something else?
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