Triumph of the Willpower

New York Times science writer John Tierney on what marshmallow-eating kids can teach us about political sex scandals, the financial crisis, replacing God with technology, and clearing out our inboxes

Are you an impulsive marshmallow eater? Your success—or failure—in life may depend on how you answer that question, says New York Times science writer John Tierney. He is the co-author, with Roy F. Baumeister, of the new book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (Penguin).

“The marshmallow test,” explains Tierney, was an experiment “where 4-year-olds would be given a marshmallow. They were told they could eat it but if they waited 15 minutes they would get two marshmallows.…The kids who managed to resist the marshmallow did much better in school, did much better in life. That’s what really kicked off the modern self-control movement.”

Drawing on groundbreaking research—including work done by Baumeister, a social psychologist at Florida State University—the authors argue that willpower is like a muscle. It can be built up and toned through conditioning, and it can be overworked and strained through “decision fatigue.”

Eminently readable, Willpower  mixes the latest developments in the study of the mind with helpful methods of self-control. Tierney and Baumeister shed light on issues ranging from the drug war to the housing bubble to workplace productivity. For video of this interview, go to reason.tv.

reason: Why write a book about willpower?

John Tierney: If you look at the traits that predict success in almost anything—in school, at work, in your family, staying out of jail—the two things are intelligence and self-control. Psychologists still haven’t figured out much to do about intelligence, but they have rediscovered how to improve self-control.

reason: You write about decision fatigue. I think we’ve probably all felt that. But can you describe what it is and how it works from a scientific perspective?

Tierney: Willpower—the popular idea is that it’s something that you use to resist temptation and to make yourself work. But they’ve also found that this same energy is used in making decisions, simply deciding what to have for lunch, what to do at a meeting; all these things deplete the same resource. After a while, when you’ve depleted this resource, it’s a state called ego depletion. You’ve got less self-control, you’re more prone to give in to temptation, it’s harder for you to work, and you tend to make worse decisions. 

In this state of decision fatigue you’re looking for mental shortcuts, and sometimes you do something really impulsive because you just don’t think things through. You basically say, “Sure, I’ll tweet that photo of myself in my underwear; what could go wrong?” The other thing you can do is just defer decisions; you basically just duck them all day. Since I wrote the book and it was excerpted [in The New York Times], I’ve stopped trying to do anything important late in the day. And people at the Times magazine that ran an excerpt of this said, “You know, we’ve got to stop having meetings after 4 o’clock.” 

reason: Since you brought up the esteemed Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) and his underwear tweeting brought on by decision fatigue, let’s talk a little bit about the implications of this idea in politics. Lately there’s been a lot of “never waste a crisis” legislating. When our legislators rush to do big things at the last minute, are we getting high-quality decisions?

Tierney: George [W.] Bush famously called himself “the decider,” and that’s what these guys do all day long: They make decisions. If you just keep doing that all day long, eventually you start making really bad ones and trying to make a lot of them and trying to make them late at night. It explains why someone like Eliot Spitzer, whom we write about in the book, someone that disciplined, that ambitious, [who] knew the laws [and] knew the risk…how does he get to be governor and then finally blow it? And there are probably lots of reasons in his psyche why he did that, but it’s just the fact he’s sitting there as governor making decisions all day long and then at night: “Sure, why not call the call girl? Why not transfer from my own bank account so it’s traceable?” 

reason: Should we ban politicians from going on diets or quitting smoking while they’re in office?

Tierney: You know, Obama should not be trying to quit smoking while he’s in office [laughter]. Or at least he should be doing lots of Nicorette. One of the rules for New Year’s resolutions is do one of them, because trying to quit smoking, trying to diet, trying to make a decent decision about the health care bill, these things all draw on the same source of mental energy, and you can’t do it all at once. You need to figure out which one to focus on. Successful people are actually the ones who tend to minimize their choices. They focus on one thing and they set up their lives so they’re not constantly drawing on this same source. 

(Interview continues below video.)

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  • Rich||

    Are you an impulsive marshmallow eater?

    Nope. Marshmallows suck.

    Your success—or failure—in life may depend on how you answer that question

    So, do I succeed?

  • ||

    It just means you are an unAmerican commie bastard because you don't like marshmallows.

  • Rich||

    HEY!! I like apple pie and Mom!

  • ||

    That just means you are a disciplined commie.

  • anon||

    Incest is not American, that's european. Obviously a commie.

  • Jumbie||

    Alabama is not part of America?

  • Almanian||

    Your mom likes apple pie, if ya know what I'm sayin'...

  • sarcasmic||

    tl;dr

  • Sparky||

    Just think of it as saving yourself from decision fatigue later in the day.

  • ||

    There is a new parenting book called Bringing up Bebe that is all the rage. It makes much the same point. The author lived France for years and noticed the frog children actually behaved. And what she found out was they behaved because, gasp, their parents didn't cater to their every whim and actually expected them to learn patience and understand the world didn't revolve around them.

    Helicopter parents all over America have been fainting in shock over the suggestion.

  • Abdul||

    French kids look around, see the declining birth rate, and figure "Sacre bleu! Zey will keel me if I make eeven a peep!"

    More seriously, kids are a luxury item in france. Fewer people are having them, and those that do have them, don't have many.

    When i had one toddler, quiet meals in restaurants were no problem. Now that I have three, every out-of-the-house transaction is like a prison riot.

  • ||

    It is just a battle of wills with the little bastards. Parents have to win out of self preservation.

  • ||

    And I see plenty of single child families over here that have animals for children.

  • sarcasmic||

    Who will fund the government Ponzi schemes if people don't have a lot of kids?

  • ||

    They are importing tax payers from North Africa.

    No seriously!

  • ||

    More seriously, kids are a luxury item in france. Fewer people are having them, and those that do have them, don't have many.

    France has a fertility rate of 2.00, compared to the US at 2.05. So I don't think that explains it.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L.....ility_rate

    I read an article in the WSJ last weekend on this. What struck me about it was that the French are raising their kids pretty much the way I was raised - don't cater to their every demand, don't act like the world revolves around them, etc.

  • cynical||

    Did they teach them not to riot, strike, and burn cars? Because it didn't take.

  • Sparky||

    r: Why write a book on willpower?
    T: I needed some money and self-help-like books always sell really well.

    r: You write about decision fatigue. I think we’ve probably all felt that. But can you describe what it is and how it works from a scientific perspective?
    T: Haha, no, I'm a science reporter.

  • Old Mexican||

    ... and its companion study, The Triumph Of The Will, which...

    Hmmm...

  • ||

    There's so much pseudo-science in this book, I simply don't know where to start. Baumeister is really the king of the pseudo-science known as social psychology.

  • ||

    Isn't it mostly just putting a scientific veneer on something that is just intuitively obvious and borne out by experience? Yeah, if you are patient and persistent, you will usually accomplish something. I need a PHD to tell me that?

  • ||

    Or is it just a journalist promoting pseudo-science for a quick buck. It's the scientific veneer I can't stand, and what does intuitively obvious even mean? A lot of scientific theories have disproved the intuitively obvious, like relativity, or even the Copernican model.

  • ||

    With human behavior, there are some things that just seem to be so. They so obviously true that it would be difficult to prove them. Willpower is one of them. Of course you will do better in life if you have more will power. How could you not? It is sort of axiomatic that if you don't do something or will quit something easily, you won't do much in life. Why do I need to torture children with marshmallows to figure that out?

    It is a whole book making a really mundane and obvious point.

  • Sparky||

    It is a whole book making a really mundane and obvious point.

    And if you go to any bookstore you will see hundreds of them.

  • ||

    Well the marshmallow experiment is more about the ability to delay gratification. It's an old experiment and a valid one in my opinion--I wouldn't characterize it as torture by any stretch of the imagination.

    Baumeister's work, and he is supposedly the most often cited "scientist" is pure BS. It's simply not science. Tierney builds his book on Baumeister's work so it's the bullshit artist leading the blind. Put the veneer of science on it and people will eat it up, including Reason, apparently.

  • EscapedWestOfTheBigMuddy||

    Why do I need to torture children with marshmallows to figure that out?

    Dman, dude. The kid gets a marshmallow for nothing. Two if he can hold his metaphorical horses for a quarter of an hour.

    I probably would only have gotten the one. I didn't learn that kind of self control until later on.

  • ||

    I couldn't remember if I wrote about this, but I did.

    However this guy does a much better job.

  • Sparky||

    Good article.

  • ||

    Thanks!

  • Zeb||

    I haven't read the book and I generally agree that social psychology (well most of psychology) is pseudoscience at best. But that doesn't mean that we can't learn anything about the subjects it purports to study.
    There are reasons why we do one thing rather than another and why it is easier to force oneself to do things sometimes.
    I think that a lot of people get a bit carried away on the idea that we are completely free agents (I think we are, but that is no reason to stop looking into how that comes to be). Of course we are all morally responsible for our behavior and choices, but that doesn't mean that the ways we behave under different circumstances and the reasons why we come to the decisions we do are not interesting and worthy of study.

  • Sparky||

    The biggest problem, IMO, is that unlike hard science the hypotheses aren't rigorous enough. Because every person has unique behavioral and thought processes, many hypotheses don't last very long. At best you could make statistical claims but even that is pushing it as there will always be "outliers". I grant that it's a worthy goal to try to understand why people act or think different ways but it's silly to call it science.

  • ||

    Yeah, but one of Bausmeister's big "insights" (lauded in the book) is that willpower is related to blood glucose. I find this and the methodology extremely questionable.

    There are experiments in psychology and sociology that do have some merit, or are at least thought-provoking, IMO but Baumeister's stuff isn't.

  • Bee Tagger||

    They were told they could eat it but if they waited 15 minutes they would get two marshmallows

    An Elliot Reid now, or 2 of them 15 minutes later? It's a tough call.

  • Sara Silverman||

    So maybe the kids who didnt wait only wanted one marshmellow. Or maybe they were like, I got shit to do, Im not hanging around 15 minutes for a freakin marshmallow. Offer me happy meal and we'll talk.

  • Rich||

    This.

  • ||

    and if you were a starving kid you'd also wait.
    that brings to mind they keep telling 1out of 4 or 5 kids is starving yet there is also so much obesity how can the two occure at the same time, more proof that studies need more studies.

  • ||

    if they waited 15 minutes they would get two marshmallows.

    These people should be locked up for crimes against humanity.

    Poisoning small children with toxic "treats" while fostering an atmosphere condoning creation of have versus have-not unfairness.

    MONSTERS.

  • anon||

    Excellent satire. I especially like how you included the "have versus have-not."

    7/10

  • ||

    what is a marshmellow? What is it actually made out of?
    Marsh critters, like possums and muskrats?
    I sure as hell wouldn't wait 15 minutes for one. I wouldn't have eaten the first one.
    Now a Hershey bar, or a Twix, thats good eating. Or M&M's, especially the Fushia ones...

  • ||

    Sugar and gelatin. They are actually a no go for vegetarians.

  • Sparky||

    Did anyone else hear that whooshing noise?

  • anon||

    I won't even waste 5 seconds in the store looking for marshmellows. No fucking way I'd wait 15 minutes.

    Cigarettes, on the other had, I'll drive half an hour for.

  • anon||

    other hand too. I don't know what a had is.

  • Sparky||

    Of course, you could spend your entire life looking for marshmellows since they don't exist. Marshmallows, on the other hand...

    /pedant

  • anon||

    I've read that word a million times and never realized it was "mallow." i r gud at reading.

  • Zeb||

    On the third hand, you are not 4 years old.

  • anon||

    AM TOO!

    PROVE ME WRONG!

  • anon||

    Oh wait, you said 4, not Glenn Beck.

  • ||

    No Green Lantern references yet? I'm shocked!

  • Jumbie||

    Libertarians are all orange lanterns, didnt you know?

  • Jumbie||

    Actually, now that I think about it, reason uses a lot of orange in their logo and color schemes... This may be something after all.

  • AlmightyJB||

    Also, these kids may have inferred that there was an expectation that they should wait. Those kids looking for approval would wait. The kids that didnt give a shit about approval wouldnt. Theres a lot of variables and possible expainations here. Of course if one defines self control as doing what everyone expects us to do than there might be something there. Self control = doing those things that gain acceptance to the group?

  • AlmightyJB||

    I suppose you could apply that to "success" as well. It is defined by the group.

  • anon||

    Self control = doing those things that gain acceptance to the group?

    It could be argued this way, though I don't know how good it'd be. People enter societies looking for economic benefits; gaining acceptance to the group makes receiving the benefits just a bit easier ("foot-in-the-door"). For whatever reason, groups tend not to look fondly on gluttonous behavior (scarce resources).

    Like I said, I don't know how good of an argument can be made here, but I can see how one would be formed.

  • AlmightyJB||

    Were these kidz less successful in school because they lacked will power or because school was not a priority to them.

  • anon||

    Yes.

  • AlmightyJB||

    True enough, however, there are a whole lot more variables than just those two.

  • Sparky||

    I think they were good in school because they liked marshmallows. At least that seems to be the only logical link you could make here.

  • anon||

    Willpower—the popular idea is that it’s something that you use to resist temptation and to make yourself work. But they’ve also found that this same energy is used in making decisions, simply deciding what to have for lunch, what to do at a meeting; all these things deplete the same resource.

    Now I understand why Obama wants to take away so many of our choices. It's so we don't get tired of making decisions!

    I knew he was looking out for us.

  • ||

    I remember as a kid i would never accept candy when asked. I loved candy but i chose not to get candy just to see if I could.

    Anyway i did awful in school and am not particularly successful.

    Childhood Will power as a predictor is bullshit.

  • anon||

    I loved candy but i chose not to get candy just to see if I could.

    This is a far better predictor of success imo. You acted against your own self interest for no good reason.

  • Zeb||

    Maybe you are just an outlier. I had good willpower as a child and did well in school. So that cancels you out.

  • Joe||

    Anecdotes... the cornerstone of science!

  • Zeb||

    The studies that this is based on may or may not be crap. I haven't read the book or the article. But intuitively it seems pretty valid. People seem to be trying to discredit this for political reasons, which is silly. The fact that making choices depletes willpower (or whatever the claim is) is an interesting observation. The fact that some people might use it to argue that choice should be limited has no bearing on the validity of the observations or conclusions.

  • ryan||

    Clearly this fool simply doesn't understand the Law of Diminishing Marshmallows.

  • The Derider||

    Decision fatigue is a really interesting concept, and despite the protestations of some people here, has been verified experimentally.

    http://www.pnas.org/content/108/17/6889

    The most interesting consequences are for economic theory. Rational, profit-maximizing behavior forms the foundation of classical microeconomics. Those affected by decision fatigue don't make rational, profit-maximizing decisions.

    Our modeling of human behavior in economic models is, at best, incomplete.

  • Sparky||

    Imagine that, soft science concepts apply to another soft science therefore it's real science. Economics is not any more of a hard science than psychology is.

  • The Derider||

    I think the difficulty with most social sciences is that human behavior is far too complicated to be reduced to simpler concepts that can be modeled with math.
    Economics is probably closer to that goal than psychology.

    Also, both economics and psychology present a lot more testable predictions than superstring theory. Why is the latter a "hard" science, then?

  • Joe M||

    I ate nine pink-frosted heart-shaped sugar cookies from the break room today. What does that portend for my future?

  • ||

    DIABEETUS!

  • Konfounded Kristen||

    I only like marshmallows that are burnt to a crisp on the outside, with a melty gooey center, served on a bed of fine Hershey's chocolate & name brand graham crackers.

  • Almanian||

    "Impulsive Marshmallow Eater" sounds like another euphemism for teh gaiz.

    NTTAWWT

  • Sparky||

    LOL!

  • Rather||

    "Successful parents tend to have successful kids"

    No, they have mixed results; the only definitive negatives are with addicted/abusive parents producing more of the same.

    Does the child eat the marshmallow because he's subnormal in self-regulation, or is there other reasons?

    Not understanding the concept of time? Is fifteen minutes concrete in their mind?

    So a child who cannot grasp math at an early age may be prone to immediate satisfaction not because of self-control but in fact a reverse expression of a learning disability

  • Rather||

    Fuck patience! Now that I'm an adult, I can go to Costco and buy marshmallows by the pallet!

  • squishua||

    Yeah, it's called "time preference." Check out Austrian economics.

  • wulfy||

    I don't have time now to event plan to write a comment on this story, so this is a reminder to myself to plan my comment later.

  • wulfy||

    Ok, my plan is to write a comment in one minute.

  • wulfy||

    Ok, here's my comment:
    In the time it took me to write a plan reminder, write a plan, then do the task of writing one comment, I could have written five different comments.

    I guess this technique is for large, multi-stage tasks.

    Hell, I'll try it anyway with my email, I can't get much worse at organizing.

  • NL_||

    Devil's advocate: is it possible that the discount factor for a marshmallow is different for different people? Maybe the present value of 2 marshmallows in 15 minutes is less than the present value of 1 marshmallow right now.

    Which I guess is the point. Maybe it's a discipline problem, or maybe it's just a systemic flaw in overestimating the discount value of future returns. Or maybe it's not discipline or devaluing the future, maybe it's trouble even contemplating the future.

    But it's not entirely clear from the experiment that it's a willpower issue. That presumes that everybody (1) makes a mental estimate of the present value of future returns and compares them to the value of current consumption, (2) decides that the present value of future gains is greater than current consumption, but (3) ignores the tradeoff, loses willpower, and goes for the lower-value result anyway.

    It's possible some people don't lack willpower, they just for whatever reason don't even come to the conclusion that the future return is worth waiting for. Either they use an abnormally aggressive discount value or they fail to even fully consider the two options.

  • wulfy||

    Concur on time value of marshmallow value. Another reason to eat the one immediately:

    1. Im reading Tierney's book now, and they prove that glucose increases willpower.

    2. To be valid, the marshmallow experiment would have to control for how much glucose was in each child's system when the experiment began.

    3. Just like the water vs diamonds scenario, a glucose starved kid has diminished willpower to start with, and values the single marshmallow NOW more than two 15 min from now.

    4. In a 4 year old, one marshmallow is plenty of glucose, and he won't miss the second one physiologically or emotionally (assuming he uses his new willpower to assuage his sadness over the lost opportunity).

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