overused, and then stops functioning properly. But,
can this “muscle” be strengthened? The answer seems
to be yes.
You may have heard of the famous “Marshmallow
Test.” This 50-year-old study by psychologist Walter
Mischel of Stanford University tested four- to six-year-old children on their ability to resist a treat, such as
a marshmallow, for a short period of time in order
to receive two treats. The kids were told they could
eat the treat immediately after the researcher left the
room, but if they could delay their gratification by not
eating the marshmallow, they would receive a second
treat in about 15 minutes. What happened? Some of
the kids ate the treat immediately; others squirmed, sat
on their hands, picked their nose, sang, turned away
from the treat, covered their eyes, or used other techniques to resist eating the treat so they could receive
a second one a little later. Mischel then followed up
on these kids as adults. Those who resisted the short-term temptation for the longer-term goal had higher
SAT scores, lower rates of obesity, higher educational
attainment, and lower rates of addiction and divorce.
There is often a basic conflict: we want to do something we shouldn’t (eat that giant box of popcorn at
the movies) or we don’t want to do something we
should (put aside money for retirement). So, the big
question is, how can we strengthen this muscle called
Here are some techniques that can help:
• Call yourself a different name.
A University of Manitoba study found that people who
identified themselves as “exercisers” (rather than gym-goers) exercised more. Those who called themselves
“runners” ran more, and those who called themselves
“swimmers” swam more. You get the idea. So start
thinking of yourself as a saver, a healthy eater, an early
riser, etc. Sounds simple, but this sort of self-fulfilling
prophecy is powerful.
• Manipulate your environment.
Tend to gorge at night? Throw out the junk food.
You’re less likely to jump in the car and drive some-
“Willpower is the power to take action while the mind searches for excuses.”