Can You Control Your Willpower?

How good is your willpower? Professor Walter Mischel wants to find out how your willpower affects you, from childhood to adulthood, and if waiting for rewards can allow us to be more successful adults.

“If I could, I’d want money or treats right away as a kid, I wouldn’t have saved anything. My parents pretty much told me, ‘hey you made $20 bucks save ten of it.’ It wasn’t my first choice, but I’m pretty grateful for it now,” said firefighting student, Zack Andersen.

We asked Comm studies professor Zeraka Mitchell how her attitudes trended. “When I was little I collected pogs, you know those little discs. I did like to save things if I could. Now I budget at the beginning of each month, I lay out all my expenses for rent, my bills, groceries, and savings. Savings first, actually. When those are all paid, I have a little entertainment fund too.”

In 1974, Professor Mischel started testing children in this way; a child is told they may have a marshmallow right away, however, if they wait until the tester returns, they can have double the marshmallows. The tester would then leave the room for about 3 minutes. Mischel started to study how a child’s willpower at 5 to 7 years old could affect their attitudes and lives into adulthood.

Mischel asked, “When you draw a whole picture without breaking your crayon, is that because you were very careful? Or because it was a good crayon?” Or, “when somebody brings you a present, is that because you are a good boy/girl? Or because they like to give people presents?”

Part of the question is not only what a child’s attitude can predict about how they will behave into adulthood, but if they can consider and shape their thought process to become better adults.

“When I was little I was pretty bad with money, I’m trying to be better now, and adult more. I get financial aid, I try to save from my job, I’m also trying to budget because I want to move out on my own soon,” said Chabot student Andres Guzman

“I think they should teach a money management course for college. I budget monthly, I don’t have a longer-term plan yet, but I know it’s going to work. I saved money like crazy when I was little. As a kid, I usually saved things for later, I was a smart kid.” — Vanessa Wells

Some people change their habits as they grow up, but still have to fight impulses regularly. One student said she tries to save, but she also has an expensive shoe habit. Impulses like these are okay, but there’s a risk of getting into debt because of a purchase you made on a whim. It’s better to budget ahead of time for fun things and entertainment.

“As a kid, I usually saved my money, I did collect Yu-gi-oh cards for a little while. I don’t have a full-time job, so I don’t really have a long-term plan for money, but I do try to be economically frugal,” said Chabot student, Nicholas Kwong

Taming these impulses are tied to what Professor Mischel calls “hot” and “cool” systems in the brain. He had another trial study that scanned children’s brains while being shown pictures of food, and asked them to either imagine the delicious food was right in front of them, and the heat and smells — or to imagine the food was far away, and focus on the abstract, such as the color or shape of the food.

When asked to consider the food was close and delicious, the children’s brains had increased “hot” areas in the brain, cravings, appetite, and less activation in the prefrontal cortex. Using far away and abstract “cool” terms created fewer cravings, and when both were given the Marshmallow Test, those who linked food with desire could not wait as long for a treat as children who could focus on the abstract.

Mischel’s studies have shown that a large part of patience and even addictions are related to how we think about something we want. When thinking about the short-term effect, like “it will feel good” or “people will like me” it’s easier to give in to cravings that might lead to bad habits, like overspending, smoking, or eating too many sweets.

“My savings are all right, but I spend too much on food probably, I go out too much,” said Chabot student, Edward Lai.

Food may be the biggest downfall, the easiest thing to spend money on without thinking when we should be planning. If we focus on our longer-term results and goals, it’s easier to distance ourselves from those over-indulgences.

This entry was posted in Continued Online, News on by .

About Magda Heilborn

Magda Heilborn has been drawing and writing about common and unusual events since she was a child, but only recently learned the abbreviated style of a true journalist. She currently publishes card games, including Hungry Hungry Hipsters and Buffet Master, but hopes to go deeper into the field of publishing, probably in the realm of books or other media.

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