Monday, July 25, 2016

Willpower Isn’t So Simple (And That’s A Good Thing)

The phrase “nose to the grindstone” makes no sense. How is pressing your nose to a grindstone a good idea?

When I was in college, I didn’t sit at the desks in front of the library’s floor-to-ceiling windows. I sat in enclosed cubbies: surrounded by blank walls, I thought I would concentrate better. How awful.

Sometimes I think civilizations advance, and individuals mature, when they figure out not everything is black and white.

And willpower is an example. It’s not so simple. It, or its lack, is not a matter of character.

You know the famous marshmallow test? Researchers told preschoolers they could have one marshmallow now or, if they waited a bit, they could have two. Then, the marshmallow in front of the child, the researchers left to see what the child would do.

Decades later, the kids who waited had better life outcomes: did better in school, had higher SAT scores, were in better health, were less likely to have gotten in trouble with the law and made more money than those who didn’t.

The news coverage of this was basically, “See? Willpower is good. And some people have it and others don’t.”

But that wasn’t it. The lead researcher has written a book and has been giving interviews, such as the ones here, here and here.

The real story is the kids who could wait knew how to wait. They played mental tricks on themselves. They turned their backs on the marshmallow. They sang to themselves.

Another researcher, with equally charming studies (one of his involving radishes and fresh-baked cookies) has shown that willpower is like muscle strength: it can be developed and wisely used.

It can (and should) be a happy thing – sitting in front of a pretty view or singing – not a grind. Yay.

1 comment:

  1. If I had been one of those kids in the marshmallow study, I would have passed with flying colors. My secret? I don't like marshmallows. My husband and daughter love Peeps but, much like cotton candy, I think they taste grainy and set my teeth on edge. Now if the test had been a Hershey bar, I would have been in real trouble...