Psychology/Psychiatry

Reason.tv: John Tierney—Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength

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

"The marshmallow test," explains Tierney to Reason.tv, "was this [experiment] where four-year-olds would be given a marshmallow. They were told they could eat but if they waited 15 minutes, they would get two marshmallows. The kids who managed to resist the marshmallow [and waited] 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—Tierney and Baumeister 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. In a world in which all too many things seem to scuttling into chaos, Baumeister and Tierney beautifully articulate the science of self-control.

Interview by Reason's Katherine Mangu-Ward. Shot and edited by Joshua Swain.

About 7 minutes long.

Go to Reason.tv for downloadable versions and subscribe to Reason.tv's YouTube channel for automatic notifications when new material goes live.

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  1. Are you an impulsive marshmallow eater?

    Thanks to Morning Links, we now know FoE is an impulsive Mallo Cup eater.

    1. I never admitted to any such thing.

      1. Re: Mallow Cups

        Do they (along with the PB Cups) still have the little cards on the package that you can save up and get free candy? They did when I was a kid. That was the advantage they had over Reese’s.

        1. Good call. I remember that, although I never collected them because that would be like using a coupon and coupons are for old ladies. I don’t know if they still do have anything on the cards.

    2. You know who else believed in the triumph of the will?

  2. What if you had the willpower to know you should only eat one marshmallow?

  3. Give it up guys, he said he wasn’t running.

  4. If the 4 year olds were clever they could use the 15 minutes to hit up the neighbors for a marshmallow for a “scavenger hunt”. Presumably they could obtain about a dozen marshmallows in this fashion.

  5. From the director of Die Hard comes the new book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.

    I COULDN’T PUT IT DOWN!
    -Fist of Etiquette, Reason Magazine …commenter

    1. Oh, for what the shit, Woodhouse? Did the disappearing of a comment mean I inherited a bunch of replies? Future historians are going to look at this and think I was a freakshow nobody liked.

  6. In the case of Obama, first he eats all the marshmallows, then he blames the rich for not making more, then the protestors come out with signs about “Fair Marshmallows” and how they will stop the Marshmallow Factories unless they sell them for free. Then the bigots at the NAACP complain that since blacks are 16% of the population, 50% of marshmallows should be black in the name of diversity. Then La Raza demands Marshmallows in packages en espa?ol. Then the quadriplegic lobby sue with the ADA and get government-paid marshmallow aides to help them eat. Then we become Cuba and our daughters whore themselves to German tourists for free marshmallows.

    Lesson learned? Don’t feed a liberal.
    http://libertarians4freedom.blogspot.com/

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  7. What if you don’t like marshmallows?

    “We’ve been going about this all wrong. This Mr. Stay-Puft’s okay! He’s a sailor, he’s in New York; we get this guy laid, we won’t have any trouble!”

  8. I would have watched the video but I got decision fatigue from reading the article. I hear sugar is a good way to boost cognitive functions, maybe some marshmallows would be in order.

  9. So if the behavior of 4-year-olds is predictive of later success, doesn’t that mean willpower itself is more or less genetically determined?

    1. Do you have the willpower it takes to not feed the troll?

      1. Obviously you don’t.

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        1. It was a rhetorical question to the audience, you sad caricature.

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            1. Don’t I know it.

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      2. NOT FEED THE TROLLLOOOOOOOO??????

    2. No? I mean, how does that rule out it being nurture?

    3. Tony|10.4.11 @ 3:36PM|#

      So if the behavior of 4-year-olds is predictive of later success, doesn’t that mean willpower itself is more or less genetically determined?

      Or it could mean that by age 4, you’ve already received a significant amount of your programming/brainwashing.

  10. Who the hell conducted this experiment- Dr. Mengele? You should never give marshmallows to a 4 year old – it’s like shoving cocaine up his nose. Sugar, fattening, addiction… AAAAAGGGHHHH!!!!

    1. I have a 4 year old and can’t wait to try this tonight.

      1. I’m trying it with my 16 year old. I bet it will be less predictive but every bit as fun.

        1. By 16 the child should be deeply suspicious of your experiments. If not, you’re failing in your dadtrolling.

        2. You’ll have to use money with the 16-yr-old. A marshmallow doesn’t figure as highly in the psyche of the 16-yr-old as it does the 4-yr-old.

          1. ‘Dadtrolling’ is such an effective neologism that I think I shall adopt it myself. Thank you.

  11. “decision fatigue”

    So it’s one of them nudge-y ‘too many choices’ things…

    …New York Times science writer…

    Ah. Bayonet-nudge.

    1. So it’s one of them nudge-y ‘too many choices’ things…

      Or it might just be an interesting fact about how our minds work. There is some reason why some people are better at self discipline than others. Seems like worthwhile research to try to find out more about that.

      1. No, that research would not be worthwhile. Nanny-staters will cry foul that it isn’t fair that some people are better at resisting temptation than others, so the only right thing to do is to remove the offending choices that so befuddle the proles.

    2. If it’s true, it’s true. There’s no reason the solution to choice fatigue isn’t sociotechnical rather than political. I mean, I know I hit Rotten Tomatoes as a shit filter before I put any effort into thinking about which movies to see.

      Rating services, private certification groups, search engines, free markets — all bottom-up ways to collaboratively sort through choices in a reasonably helpful but much less mentally intensive way. And those who don’t trust them are always free to do the work themselves.

  12. I remember the types of kids who were ‘savers.’ Usually timid, boring, overly anxious little things. I knew a girl who would slowly ration her Halloween/Easter candy so between the two it lasted all year. This was fine by me because once mine was gone I would convince her to share hers.

    1. My mom thought putting it on top of the fridge would stop me. She was sorely mistaken.

      1. My god, I just realized that NutraSweet is Jeff Cohen.

        1. No need to be hurtful. I was super-skinny as a little kid. They took me to the doctor because they thought I had some sort of wasting disease.

          1. NutraSweet love Chunk?

            1. Fat kids always look like they smell.

        2. But the worst thing I ever done – I mixed a pot of fake puke at home and then I went to this movie theater, hid the puke in my jacket, climbed up to the balcony and then, t-t-then, I made a noise like this: hua-hua-hua-huaaaaaaa – and then I dumped it over the side, all over the people in the audience. And then, this was horrible, all the people started getting sick and throwing up all over each other. I never felt so bad in my entire life.

      2. What some of us lack in willpower, we make up for in ingenuity.

        1. What about those of us who lack willpower and ingenuity?

          1. Shoplifting.

            1. and socialism

    2. 3 month old Halloween candy?

      eeeeeeeeeeeeeewwwwwwwwwwwwww!

      1. All there would be left were those gross brown chewy things in the orange and black paper wrappers, and maybe a few suckers. Not the good flavors either, just orange and yellow.

        1. I don’t know about Canada, but the orange and black wax paper candy were peanut butter taffy in ‘Murika. I hated them as a kid, but love them now. Except for when you hit the odd gritty tumor in every 5th one of them. That’s pretty nasty.

          1. How can you even eat that stuff? Won’t it turn you into the Hulk, or alternately, Lindsay Lohan on a Saturday night?

            1. Eh, one or two. I can’t go face-first into a bowl and eat my feelings or anything.

              What I really had to break myself of were Lemonheads. Sweet monkey fuck, I used to eat a lot of Lemonheads. I even wrote a short story in college about Lemonheads. I haven’t had one in years. I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to stop.

              1. What is a Lemonhead?

                You may have guessed that I am not a big eater of candy.

                1. The same basic construction as a red hot, but lemon instead of cinnamon.

                  They also make cherry, apple, orange and grape. The appleheads are vile, cherry is meh, but orange and grape are pretty good. (Grapeheads used to be called “Alexander The Grape.”)

                  1. Huh. Not my thing. This is about as candy as I go.

                    1. That’s like eating baking cocoa.

                    2. Not quite. I have had this too, though.

                    3. … I can still remember my disappointment the first (and only) time I tried eating a spoonful of that horrifically named non-chocolate tasting BS when I was a kid.

                    4. Carob for the win.

          2. No, these were definitely not peanut butter. Maybe Aresen knows what they’re called but you literally could not escape them at Halloween. Usually from old people. They were really sticky and the flavor might have been trying for chocolate but failed. Kind of like a Tootsie Roll, but grosser.

            1. Sounds like a Canadian Tootsie Roll knockoff. Does Canada subsidize its crappy native candy?

              1. Wow. Do not google “canadian tootsie roll” at work with the safe search off. [shudder]

                1. You have to admit, it does sound like the name of a kinky sex act. (No, I did not google it.)

              2. I must admit I like Canadian Mints – specifically the pink ones that taste like Pepto-Bismol.

                1. I must admit I like Canadian Mints – specifically the pink ones that taste like Pepto-Bismol.

                  Those things are great.

            2. Here are the ones I’m thinking of. Now I’m curious… what other candies are different in Canada?

              1. Here are the ones I’m thinking of. Now I’m curious… what other candies are different in Canada?

                Even Ketchup is different in Canada.

              2. These had orange and black and maybe yellow on the same wrapper. I think there were pictures of cats and pumpkins etc. And I am totally failing to find a picture, but one mommy blogger describes them. She’s probably Canadian too.

              3. Canada has a lot of English candies from Cadbury.

                1. Don’t mention the bacon thing. Bloody savages.

              4. Surely you are already aware of the Smarties dichotomy? Canadian Smarties are like more colorful and more delicious M&M’s, whereas American Smarties are crap.

                1. Yeah. Canadian Smarties are candy coated milk-chocolate flavored wax while American “Smarties” (I assume you mean “M&M”s are candy coated dark-chocolate flavored wax.

                  1. No, Aresen, Americans call Rockets (those hard, slightly fizzy ones in the plastic sleeve) “Smarties.” It’s weird.

                    And you are just wrong about real Smarties. I was thrilled to see that they actually sell them in the British food section of a grocery store in Seattle. Otherwise I have my mum mail them to me.

                2. Take back what you said about American Smarties!!1!

    3. I didn’t even save my G.I. Joes. After I discovered that they’d explode if you twisted their legs enough, that was it for them.

      1. We exploded ours with M80’s and my Colt Challenger .22. Good times…

    4. My Mom and Dad would take us down to Mobile, AL every summer to visit cousins. My brother and I were fascinated by the fact that all the toys our cousins had recieved for Christmas were still like brand new. We played with our toys until they didn’t work any more which was usually about the 2nd week of January. I guess each side of the family was showing some will power just in different ways.

  13. “The marshmallow test,” explains Tierney to Reason.tv, “was this [experiment] where four-year-olds would be given a marshmallow. They were told they could eat but if they waited 15 minutes, they would get two marshmallows. The kids who managed to resist the marshmallow [and waited] did much better in school, did much better in life.

    My 9-year-old would so blow this test out of the water. She’d wait a week if they told her she’d get ten.

    God I hope the outcomes are true for her.

  14. marshmallows – I _can_ only eat one.

  15. That’s right! That is exactly what we need right now to get over our problems – willpower! Now, excuse me as I go out to have a smoke….

  16. Halloween taught me that gluttony makes you sick. So I learned to ration out the stuff.
    Of course my entire career has been one failure after another so that theory is shot to hell.

    1. Halloween taught me that gluttony makes you sick

      OTOH
      – Avarice makes you rich.
      – Envy gives you someone to beat up.
      – Pride means you know you are better.
      – Sloth allows you to get plenty of rest.
      – Wrath gives you the adrenaline rush need to beat the #*# out of someone.
      – Lust is just plain fun.

      1. Man, you must have watched a different version of Seven than I did.

        1. There are several versions of the Seven Deadly Sins, but I’m more worried about the Seven Deadly Virtues:

          http://www.stlyrics.com/lyrics…..irtues.htm

  17. Serious question: Do they have to sit at the table for the 15 minutes? I can see a 4 year old trading the second marshmallow for the 15 minutes of NOT sitting at the table.

    1. That is a good question and would make for a wonderful companion study. You’d make a fine researcher.

  18. This brings to mind the “Guitar Hero” South Park, which was on last night.

    “I can catch the dragon! OH! I almost got him that time!”

    1. YOU ARE FAGS!!!

  19. WHAT SCIENTIST DO WHEN CATCH STEVE? NOT WANT ANAL PROBE. STEVE GIVE ANAL PROBE.

  20. This guy plays with his pecker too much.

  21. However if the child waits longer than an hour for a second marshmallow he might be autistic.

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  24. While I agree with the premise, the experiment is not that illustrative. First, even if the kids who wait go on to do better, that doesn’t mean the kids who failed this test here must do worse. 4 year old is just too young and people can and will change.

    Secondly, since willpower or more generally consideration of tradeoffs is not some very clear, discrete decision, but varies on scale, a more interesting experiment would be:
    – start with 5 marshmallows
    – wait 30 mins
    – offer X number of marshmallows
    – increase X
    – see how response varies
    – repeat above, but increase time to 60 mins
    – then track these people later on in life
    – repeat same experiment but now with money (but waiting 1 month for example) to see if their behavior and willpower abilities have changed

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  26. Drawing on groundbreaking research – including work done by Baumeister, a social psychologist at Florida State University – Tierney and Baumeister 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.”

    I think anyone who has ever meditated, practiced any form of yoga or martial art, read Book 4 or any other basic treatise on the occult, routinely engaged in strenuous physical exercise, saved money to buy a house/car/new shiny thing, succeeded in college/graduate school and/or a career, or has aged beyond young childhood years knows this, though maybe not consciously.

    It’s good, I suppose, that mainstream eggheads would think to research and demonstrate this hypothesis. If this is the sort of evidence people will accept for such an intangible as the conscious and voluntary strengthening of the will, that’s fine, too.

  27. The science is settled. It is beyond refute.

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  31. A “marshmallow test”-pseudoscience

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