The Marshmallows that Gave Us the Modern Notion of Self-Control

From “pulling yourself up by the bootstraps” to “Just say no,” we live in a culture that focuses on individuals’ choices at the expense of the structural forces that shape them. At Nautilus, psychiatrist Carl Erik Fisher launches a full-on attack on our understanding of willpower — a concept that almost became obsolete before mid-century psychologists breathed new (and often sinister) life into it.

In the 1960s, American psychologist Walter Mischel set out to test the ways that children delayed gratification in the face of a tempting sweet with his now-famous “marshmallow experiment.” His young test subjects were asked to choose between one marshmallow now, or two later on. It wasn’t until many years later, after he heard anecdotes about how some of his former subjects were doing in school and in work, that he decided to track them down and collect broader measures of achievement. He found that the children who had been better able to resist temptation went on to achieve better grades and test scores. This finding set off a resurgence of scholarly interest in the idea of “self-control,” the usual term for willpower in psychological research.

These studies also set the stage for the modern definition of willpower, which is described in both the academic and popular press as the capacity for immediate self-control—the top-down squelching of momentary impulses and urges. Or, as the American Psychological Association defined it in a recent report, “the ability to resist short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals.” This ability is usually portrayed as a discrete, limited resource, one that can be used up like a literal store of energy. The limited-resource concept likely has its roots in Judeo-Christian ideas about resisting sinful impulses, and it seems like a natural analogy to other physical functions like strength, endurance, or breath. In the 1990s, the psychologist Roy Baumeister conducted a key experiment to describe this capacity, which he labeled “ego depletion”: A few undergraduate students were told to resist the urge to eat some fresh-baked chocolate cookies and instead eat from a bowl of red and white radishes, while others were allowed to snack freely on the cookies. Students who were made to exercise self-control performed worse on subsequent psychological tests, suggesting that they had exhausted some finite cognitive resource.

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