The marshmallow principle

Publié le par Roy F. Baumeister And John Tierney

JournalNational Post published 30/11/2011 by Roy F. Baumeister And John Tierney

Whether you survey the annals of academe or the self-help books at the airport, it's clear that the 19th-century concept of "character building" has been out of fashion for quite a while. The fascination with willpower ebbed in the 20th century partly in reaction to the Victorians' excesses, and partly due to economic changes and the world wars. The prolonged bloodshed of First World War seemed a consequence of too many stubborn gentlemen following their "duty" to senseless deaths. Intellectuals preached a more relaxed view of life in America and much of Western Europe - but not, unfortunately, in Germany, where they developed a "psychology of will" to guide their country during its bleak recovery from the war.

Riefenstahl LeniThat theme would be embraced by the Nazis, whose rally in 1934 was featured in Leni Riefenstahl's infamous propaganda film, The Triumph of the Will. The Nazi concept of mass obedience to a sociopath was hardly the Victorian concept of personal moral strength, but the distinction was lost. If the Nazis represented the triumph of the will - well, when it comes to bad PR, there's nothing quite like a personal endorsement from Adolf Hitler.

The decline of will didn't seem like such a bad thing, and after the war there were other forces weakening it. As technology made goods cheaper and suburbanites richer, stimulating consumer demand became vital to the economy, and a sophisticated new advertising industry urged everyone to buy now. Sociologists identified a new generation of "other-directed" people who were guided by their neighbours' opinions rather than by strong inner moral convictions. The stern self-help books of the Victorian era came to be seen as naïvely self-centered. The new bestsellers were cheery works like Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People and Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking. Carnegie spent eight pages instructing readers how to smile. The right smile would make people feel good about you, he explained, and if they believed in you, success was assured.

The shift in people's characters was noticed by a psychoanalyst named Allen Wheelis, who in the late 1950s revealed what he considered a dirty little secret of his profession: Freudian therapies no longer worked the way they were supposed to. In his landmark book, The Quest for Identity, Wheelis described a change in character structure since Freud's day. The Victorian middle-class citizens who formed the bulk of Freud's patients had intensely strong wills, making it difficult for therapists to break through their ironclad defenses and their sense of what was right and wrong. Freud's therapies had concentrated on ways to break through and let them see why they were neurotic and miserable, because once those people achieved insight, they could change rather easily. By midcentury, though, people's character armour was different. Wheelis and his colleagues found that people achieved insight more quickly than in Freud's day, but then the therapy often stalled and failed. Lacking the sturdy character of the Victorians, people didn't have the strength to follow up on the insight and change their lives.

Wheelis used Freudian terms in discussing the decline of the superego in Western society, but he was essentially talking about a weakening of willpower - and all this was before the baby boomers came of age in the 1960s with a countercultural mantra of "If it feels good, do it."

The very notion that people can consciously control themselves has traditionally been viewed suspiciously by psychologists. Freudians claimed that much of adult human behavior was the result of unconscious forces and processes. B. F. Skinner had little respect for the value of consciousness and other mental processes, except as needed to process reinforcement contingencies. In Beyond Freedom and Dignity, he argued that to understand human nature we must get beyond the outmoded values in the book's title. While many of Skinner's specific theories were discarded, aspects of his approach have found new life among psychologists convinced that the conscious mind is subservient to the unconscious. The will came to seem so unimportant that it wasn't even measured or mentioned in modern personality theories. Some neuroscientists claim to have disproved its existence. Many philosophers refuse to use the term. If they want to debate this classical philosophical question of freedom of the will, they prefer to speak of freedom of action, not of will, because they doubt there is any such thing as will. Some refer disdainfully to "the so-called will."

Roy Baumeister, one of the authors of this book, shared the general skepticism toward willpower when he started his career as a social psychologist in the 1970s at Princeton. His colleagues were then focus-ing not on self-control but on selfesteem, and Baumeister became an early leader of this research, which showed that people with more confidence in their ability and their self-worth tended to be happier and more successful. So why not help everyone else succeed by finding ways to boost their confidence?

It seemed a reasonable enough goal to psychologists as well as the masses, who bought pop versions of self-esteem and "empowerment" in bestsellers like I'm OK - You're OK and Awaken the Giant Within. But the eventual results were disappointing, both inside and outside the laboratory. While international surveys showed that U.S. eighthgrade math students had exceptionally high confidence in their own abilities, on tests they scored far below Koreans, Japanese, and other students with less self-esteem.

Meanwhile, in the 1980s, a few researchers started getting interested in self-regulation, the term that psychologists use for self-control. The resurrection of self-control wasn't led by theorists, who were still convinced that willpower was a quaint Victorian myth. But when other psychologists went into the laboratory or the field, they kept happening on something that looked an awful lot like it.

Walter Mischel and his colleagues weren't theorizing about self-regulation - in fact, they didn't even discuss their results in terms of selfcontrol or willpower until many years later. They were studying how a child learns to resist immediate gratification, and they found a creative new way to observe the process in four-year-old children. They would bring the children one at a time into a room, show them a marshmallow, and offer them a deal before leaving them alone in the room. The children could eat the marshmallow whenever they wanted to, but if they held off until the experimenter returned, they would get a second marshmallow to eat along with it. Some children gobbled the marshmallow right away; others tried resisting but couldn't hold out; some managed to wait out the whole 15 minutes for the bigger reward. The ones who succeeded tended to do so by distracting themselves, which seemed an interesting enough finding at the time of the experiments, in the 1960s.

Much later, though, Mischel discovered something else thanks to a stroke of good fortune. His own daughters happened to attend the same school, on the Stanford University campus, where the marshmallow experiments took place. Long after he finished the experiments and moved on to other topics, Mischel kept hearing from his daughters about their classmates. He noticed that the children who had failed to wait for the extra marshmallow seemed to get in more trouble than the others, both in and out of school. To see if there was a pattern, Mischel and his colleagues tracked down hundreds of veterans of the experiments. They found that the ones who had shown the most willpower at age four went on to get better grades and test scores. The children who had managed to hold out the entire 15 minutes went on to score 210 points higher on the SAT than the ones who had caved after the first half minute. The children with willpower grew up to become more popular with their peers and their teachers. They earned higher salaries. They had a lower bodymass index, suggesting that they were less prone to gain weight as middle age encroached. They were less likely to report having had problems with drug abuse.

These were stunning results, because it's quite rare for anything measured in early childhood to predict anything in adulthood at a statistically significant level. Indeed, this disconnect was one of the death blows against the Freudian psychoanalytic approach to psychology, which emphasized early childhood experiences as the foundation of adult personality. Surveying this literature in the 1990s, Martin Seligman concluded that there was hardly any convincing proof that episodes in early childhood have a causal impact on the adult personality, with the possible exceptions of severe trauma or malnutrition. The very few significant correlations he noted between childhood and adult measures could be explained as mostly reflecting genetic (inborn) tendencies, such as having a generally sunny or grumpy disposition. The willpower to resist a marshmallow may well have had a genetic component, too, but it also seemed amenable to nurture, producing that rare childhood advantage that could pay dividends throughout life. These dividends looked even more remarkable once the overall benefits of self-control were assessed, which Baumeister did in Losing Control, a scholarly book he wrote in 1994 with his wife, Dianne Tice, a fellow professor at Case Western Reserve University, and Todd Heatherton, a professor at Harvard.

"Self-regulation failure is the major social pathology of our time," they concluded, pointing to the accumulating evidence of its contribution to high divorce rates, domestic violence, crime and a host of other problems. The book stimulated more experiments and studies, including the development of a scale for measuring self-control on personality tests. When researchers compared students' grades with nearly three dozen personality traits, self-control turned out to be the only trait that predicted a college student's grade-point average better than chance.

From Willpower by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney. Published by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney, 2011.

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