Resisting the Marshmallow: How Self-Control Leads to Success

September 17, 2014 Katharina Lochner
image resisting temptation

Can Self-Discipline be Trained?

Self-discipline is a key factor that determines to what extent humans can lead a successful life, be it in terms of health or career or also relationships. As it is such an important factor the first question that might come to mind is: Is it innate or can it be trained? We already reported that mindfulness training can enhance self-discipline. Recently Walter Mischel, the author of the famous marshmallow experiment that is almost always mentioned along with self-discipline, gave some more ideas as to how enhance self-discipline.

In an interview with the New York Times the psychologist says there are several ways to exert self-control. First, you can simply get the temptation out of your way. For example, don’t buy the chocolate or don’t put the crisps onto your couch table while watching TV. Second, you can change the way you think about things. Turn something you consider desirable into something that you do not see as something desirable at all. His example is to imagine a cockroach having walked across the chocolate mousse the waiter in the restaurant is just offering you as a dessert (a pretty disgusting idea indeed). Third, train your brain. For this Mr Mischel gives some background information:

He explains that there are two parts in the brain, one (that he describes as “hot”) asks for immediate gratification, the so-called limbic system. The other (that he describes as “cool”) is goal-oriented, the so-called pre-frontal cortex. He says that it is the latter part of the brain that we have to train to kick in before the limbic system does. He recommends doing this by using “if-then” routines, like “If I feel angry, I will count backward from 10”. This will give us the few extra minutes to consider what we are doing before our limbic system kicks in and we just do what gives us the immediate gratification.

The technique most likely achieves the same effect as mindfulness training: When we are mindful we get out of routines, we stop and think before we do something (e.g. order the dessert). In an earlier post we reported that mindfulness training can help improve self-control. We also outlined the famous marshmallow experiment in an earlier post.

Mr Mischel also stresses that when training self-control it is important to have a desirable goal, such as feeling so much better after having lost a few kilos of weight.

Thus, exerting self-control may be easier for some than it is for others. However, it seems to be possible to train it. And in some cases we can just make our own life a bit easier by simply not tempting ourselves!

About the Author

Katharina Lochner

Dr Katharina Lochner is the former research director for the cut-e Group which was acquired by Aon in 2017. Katharina is now a researcher and lecturer at the University of Applied Sciences Europe in Iserlohn, Germany. In her role at cut-e, she applied the research in organizational and work psychology to real-world assessment practice. She has a strong expertise in the construction and evaluation of online psychometric tools.

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