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Will Power is a Muscle

marshmallow experiment

Perhaps you have heard about the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment? Young children were offered a marshmallow. If they could resist eating the marshmallow for 15 minutes they were promised (and given) a second marshmallow. The researchers were testing the children’s ability to delay gratification. They then looked to see how this correlated with future success. Follow-up studies found that the children who were able to delay gratification longer were described “10 years later by their parents as adolescents who were significantly more competent.” After 12 years the ability to delay gratification also correlated with higher SAT scores. “ A 2011 study of the same participants indicates that the characteristic remains with the person for life.” Differences in the groups showed up in brain scans. (wikipedia)

Skeptics have since pointed out a number of flaws in this experiment including the then ignored importance of the child’s most recent experience with these or any adults. If said experience inspired trust the child was more likely to wait. If they were led to believe that adults may not show up with the second marshmallow the child would not wait. The study was measuring not only the ability to delay gratification, but the child’s momentary state of mind as determined by numerous factors. There is a complex mix of nature and nurture at work.

I have heard this study cited when people are trying to argue for inherent traits or personality types and against the possibility that we can transform who we are when we are young. “See, those who couldn’t delay gratification with a marshmallow can’t stay home and study for their SAT’s!” The study does imply that most people do not undergo massive shifts. Most children remain in the same environment with the same parents and similar activities. What happens when they are adults and can choose to seek change? While few adults do consciously seek growth and transformation it is my experience that those who do seek growth can grow beyond the patterns and inertia that they were handed as a child. I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I had not overcome many of my own patterns and I would not continue working as a life coach if I were not seeing these types of shifts in others on a regular basis.

A 2000 study published by the American Psychological Association looks at over 100 previous papers and studies and suggests that self control is a muscle. Like all muscles, it appears to fatigue during a period of extended use. The authors, Mark Muraven and Roy F. Baumeister state that “exerting self-control may consume self-control strength, reducing the amount of strength available for subsequent self-control efforts. Coping with stress, regulating negative affect, and resisting temptations require self-control…..when a situation demands two consecutive acts of self-control, performance on the second act is frequently impaired.”

This makes the situation a bit more complex, but also gives us a more nuanced understanding. Children in the experiment may indeed have more or less baseline self control, they may also have just experienced a more or less nurturing or stressful situation. Being stressed appears to be taxing on the same system that regulates self control. Children’s who’s home is less relaxing or more taxing may have shown up in a depleted state. Many of them likely live in that state regularly. And what happens over time? If the muscle analogy has some truth to it then our self control muscles should not only tire with use, they should be susceptible to be strain from over use and growth from proper use balanced with rest and recuperation. The rest piece is crucial to me. Those who live in a stressful environment may never get the opportunity to recuperate.

A 2006 study published in the British Journal of Health Psychology set out to see how participants responded to exercising their “self-regulation muscles”. They set out to see if using our self control in one activity (here actually joining a gym and going regularly) would correlate with an increased ability to control other activities that require will power. Their conclusions? “participants also reported significant decreases in perceived stress, emotional distress, smoking, alcohol and caffeine consumption, and an increase in healthy eating, emotional control, maintenance of household chores, attendance to commitments, monitoring of spending and an improvement in study habits.” They went on to say that their 2 month program “produced significant improvements in a wide range of regulatory behaviors. Their conclusion is that exerting self control in one area develops an increased reservoir of self-regulation which all activities can tap into.

Thinking about self control in this manner should help us to be more compassionate both with ourselves and with others. When you give in and eat a piece of cake you know you shouldn’t or skip a workout you feel you need how much do you consider the many strains on your will power that you have already endured that day? The same is true when we judge others. How often do you know the full story of others lives? Can you possibly know every stress and anxiety someone else is already dealing with when you see them act in a way that you deem as less than ideal? Anyone who has ever lifted weights knows that it would be ridiculous to judge yourself as weak on the last rep of the last set of an exercise. Push your muscles hard enough, they fail and you can barely lift your arm. We don’t judge ourselves weak because we recognize all of the work that has come before this last lift. How about when it comes to your will power? Can you recognize that at times your reserves are full and at others they are depleted? Can you grant others this same consideration? I ask two things of you:

  1. Please, be gentle with yourself when you need rest.
  2. Recognize that massive change is possible when you are ready.