Marshmallows and Procrastination: My Favorite Lesson from Psychology Class
Much of what modern psychology knows about self-control was established by the Marshmallow Man. And no, not the one from “Ghostbusters.”
By Andrew Mikula, Bates College
I’ve always been a perfectionist to a gross extent.
As a child I enjoyed particular restaurants specifically because they had paintings on the walls that (to my parents’ appalled surprise) I used to lean over people’s meals to meticulously straighten.
But in high school I realized that I couldn’t do everything perfectly, and that deeply upset me. So I did what any rational person would do in my shoes: watch TV. Or scroll through my Facebook feed. Or anything else besides what I should’ve been doing.
I procrastinated so much that I ended up keeping a log of what I did to waste time every day. The log’s last entry was in December of my senior year of high school.
It was around that time that in psychology class I learned about a Stanford researcher named Walter Mischel . He had designed an experiment in the 1960s that tested the self-control abilities of preschoolers.
In the experiment, children were given the choice between receiving one marshmallow immediately or waiting 15 minutes and getting two marshmallows. If they chose to hold out for two marshmallows though, they had to wait in the presence of the original promised marshmallow.
While some children immediately ate the proffered marshmallow, others that attempted to hold out used a variety of techniques to distract themselves from the temptation, including: covering their eyes, pulling their pigtails, singing or even petting the treat as if it were a pet.
Decades later, Mischel followed up with the then-preschoolers and found that the kids with more self-control as 4-year olds had lower rates of substance abuse, higher SAT scores, were significantly wealthier and even were less likely to be divorced or imprisoned.
After reading about Mischel’s work, my first thought was a craving for marshmallows. But my second thought was that the kids who didn’t have this self-control were doomed!
As it turns out, self-control is largely a learned trait that can be fostered and improved at any age, which was good news for me because procrastinating by making a log of how I was procrastinating showed an abysmal lack of self-discipline. (Although one could make the argument that my journal showed a penchant for self-control. I was just misusing it.)
Mischel spent much of his career after the “Marshmallow Test” (as the experiment was dubbed) advocating for improving self-control.
Over that time, Mischel studied the methods people employ to control their desires. One of the most useful distraction techniques he described involved using your imagination to form negative associations with whatever stimulus you’re struggling to control your need for.
To illustrate this, let’s say you have a problem with eating too many Doritos. If every time you eat a Dorito, you vividly picture yourself as a 400-pound couch potato living in your mother’s basement with no desire to live, Doritos become less and less appealing.
In the same way, if you envision lung cancer every time you smoke a cigarette you can quickly develop an aversion to tobacco. Learning this negative connotation of tobacco makes it easier to quit smoking. How did Walter “Marshmallow Man” Mischel know this? Because he himself used this method to quit smoking.
He also learned methods of self-control from the kids who earned that second marshmallow in the 1960s experiment. They would push the marshmallow as far away from them as possible, occupy themselves by singing, or simply avoid looking at the treat for the entire 15 minutes.
Naturally, if I started singing every time I became distracted with my schoolwork, my roommate wouldn’t be very happy (I get distracted a lot, okay?).
But I’ve since developed an association in my mind between procrastination and bad grades which, by the way, is supported by bountiful scientific evidence.
I also will leave my laptop in a friend’s room when I don’t need it to do work. Just make sure that when it’s the middle of the night and you actually need it, you don’t barge into your friend’s room and wake him up when you slip in the dark and loudly knock several books off his bookcase. But that’s another story.
Self-control is part of a broader mantra of success that involves setting realistic goals and accomplishing them. Maybe it’s unrealistic to have a goal of making every painting in a restaurant perfectly straight, but it’s also counterintuitive to give up and buy 10 bags of Doritos.
Instead, Mischel’s work underscores the importance of setting achievable goals and rewarding yourself only when you accomplish them. That way, your reward isn’t arbitrarily indulgent and it reinforces the importance of goal setting.
College is often a magnificent opportunity to learn time management, as a greater proportion of work is generally done outside of the classroom than in high school. This only heightens the significance of goal setting, because planning your time is most efficient when you’re following a list of concrete objectives.
Sometimes, these objectives are subconscious. For example, when I wake up every morning I know I have to make my bed, get dressed and brush my teeth. Unfortunately for all of us, setting smaller goals for writing a term paper is a bit more complicated than setting goals for a morning routine.
All the same, I find it easier to yield to momentary whims (such as scrolling through my Facebook feed) when I don’t have precise items to focus on, even though I know it’s more important to study for a test I have tomorrow than, say, stare at pictures of my aunt’s new dog. That’s why having specific strategies for delaying gratifications is so rewarding. Occupying yourself with clear objectives is a way of distancing yourself from temptation.
Speaking of morning routines, the first thing I used to do when I woke up every morning is check my phone. But that’s teaching your brain to behave passively for the rest of the day and base decisions on a whim.
Instead, I now try to go as long as possible at the start of my day without using my phone (or checking my email too many times, etc.). Even on a day-to-day basis, productivity early on will create positive associations with establishing self-control.
Research shows that up to 95 percent of college students procrastinate. Some also struggle with addiction and alcohol abuse. Whatever it is that stokes your impulses, self-control is a crucial aspect of your potential to overcome these proclivities.