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The best book on self-control thus far, by the man who started it all.
on September 25, 2014
The Marshmallow Test by Walter Mischel, the man who started it all, is a book on self-control, probably the best one on the subject thus far. This book is everything that the currently leading book on the subject (Willpower by Baumeister and Tierney) is not: intellectually coherent, scientifically sophisticated, and concerned more about sound reasoning than about sound bites.
Research on self-control was probably started in earnest in the 1960s with Walter Mischel's celebrated "Marshmallow Test". Children around the age of five were given a choice between one marshmallow now or two marshmallows later, a delay lasting up to 20 minutes. While some ate the marshmallow right away, others used different strategies to control themselves such as averting their gaze, pulling their hair, squirming, closing their eyes or just sniffing the marshmallow and putting it back. The implications of this research came to life when researchers went back to the same children several years later. They found children who exercised self-control and waited 15 or 20 minutes to double their payoff had higher grade point averages, made more money and were fitter (as measured by BMI) when they were adults.
Genetics clearly plays a role in the level of self-control one has. The message of the book is that genetics is not destiny. Willpower is a cognitive ability and, because our brains are much more plastic than had been imagined in the past, we can substantially increase this crucial ability to control ourselves. This book shows how to gain more self-control.
Paralleling Daniel Kahneman's model of "fast" and "slow" thinking, Mischel describes two systems in the brain: "hot" (limbic) and "cold" (prefrontal cortex). The hot system deals with immediate rewards and threats while the cold system deals with delayed consequences. The key to self-control is cooling the hot system where appropriate. We need to learn to activate our prefrontal cortex first before the limbic system kicks in.
Can we actually increase our self-control? Mischel's response is yes, if you believe you can and if you really want to. In other words, you can increase your self-control if you approach it with a mindset that believes that increasing self-control is possible as opposed to a helpless mindset that believes willpower is a limited resource over which you have no control. But just having the right mindset may not be enough. We need strategies to cool our warm system.
Commonly used strategies for self-control often include removing the source of temptations (don't have junk foods around, if you are trying to eat healthy) or surrounding yourself with people who do not eat junk food. But these strategies are likely to fail without effective pre-commitment. You can remove all cigarettes from sight and yet mooch them from others. You can clear junk food from the kitchen and yet help yourself to sugar-laden cookies in business meetings. Mischel suggests that we should use more robust strategies based on research. Some such strategies are:
* MAKE UP "IF...THEN" RULES. We tend to react to cues out of habit. Create new habits with new cues. IF I go to a restaurant, THEN I will start my meal with a salad. IF I get an email notification, THEN I will finish the next item on my to-do list before reading the email. When well-rehearsed and practiced, the desired behavior is triggered automatically without effort.
* COOL THE NOW, HEAT THE LATER. Vividly imagine the negative consequences of immediate gratification: Whenever you are tempted to smoke, visualize the picture of a cancerous lung. If you are tempted overeat, visualize the picture of a person who is unfit and out of shape.
* DISTANCE YOURSELF FROM THE SITUATION. Refer to yourself in the third person. Instead of saying "I've to finish the report by tomorrow", I can say "Chuck has to finish the report by tomorrow." This way you distance yourself and change your role to that of an observer. This makes the completion of the task easier.
* SHIFT YOUR FOCUS FROM HOT TO COOL PROPERTIES. Shift your attention from the hot to the not-so-hot attributes of the stimulus: Instead of looking at the chocolate as a tasty flavorful treat look at it as a brown square, wrapped in paper. By focusing your attention on the on the cool attributes of a stimulus, we can decrease its appeal.
What about all that talk we hear about willpower being a limited resource, the mysterious "ego energy" - whatever that is - being "depleted" fast dragging your willpower along with it (which you can apparently restore with the help of glucose) and the oft-quoted generalization that "willpower is like a muscle"? Mischel wisely ignores such half-baked and sound bite oriented interpretation of research data by Baumeister and associates and gently points to the work done by Carol Dweck of Stanford University, which suggests self-control is not a limited resource and one's mindset can affect one's level of self-control.
While the book summarizes relevant research leading to its conclusions, it is much more than that. It is part a self-help book and part a look back at the work of an eminent psychologist who, at 84 years age, has chosen to share his wisdom gained through a lifetime of research in his first-ever nonacademic book. A man with nothing prove after 55 years in the academe and over 200 publications to his credit, Walter Mischel wears his wisdom lightly. He says in the introduction that he imagined himself "having a leisurely conversation with you, the reader". What a conversation it is!