By now most people have heard about the famous Stanford Marshmallow experiment. It was a piece of research done by psychologist Walter Mischel, who become interested in issues of will power when he tried to give up smoking but failed again and again to do so.
Let’s recap the experiment:
5 and 6-year-old children were given a marshmallow (or some other treat) and told that they could eat it immediately, or, they could wait while the researcher went away for 15min and when they returned, could then have two marshmallows. Double the reward for a bit of patience and will-power. The twist was that the marshmallows were left right in front of the child as they waited alone for the researcher to return.
As it turns out, many children – about 65% – couldn’t wait. They ate the marshmallow.
(to see some funny footage of the children trying to wait it out go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QX_oy9614HQ )
Follow up studies were done over five decades with these children and what Mischel found was that the children who had resisted the marshmallow and waited out the 15 minutes to get two, were generally doing much better than the other children in terms of grades at school, relationships and just general well-being and health.
So, there we have it: the ability to delay gratification is important to success in life (and therefore sport too) and some people just seem to have more than others.
BUT…this is not that whole story.
What many people overlook is the follow up Mischel did to this study where children were warned before hand about the experiment and told ‘It will be okay, just pretend the marshmallow is not even there’. In this experiment, most of the children could RESIST the temptation and wait out the 15 minutes.
What was the difference?
In the second experiment the children were instructed how to re-frame the situation and, in Mischel’s words, ‘cool’ aspects of the situation or environment that were ‘hot’ (things that were moving them away from their double marshmallow goal). When they thought about the marshmallow in a different way, could create a different picture in their head of what it was (maybe a flower or cotton-wool, rather than a marshmallow) or put a ‘frame’ around the marshmallow to pretend it was a just picture not a real sweet, will-power increased.
That’s very interesting.
What is means is that the ability to delay gratification, or will-power, is not necessarily an inherent personality trait that you either have or don’t have. Rather, your ability to ‘resist’ something has to do with your environment and your ability to rethink (or cool down) those aspects of the situation that make it difficult to achieve a goal.
In other words, your ability to distract yourself or to rethink those parts of the situation that are drawing your attention like a moth to a flame, is critical for performance, and as Mischel’s points out, 5-year-old’s can be very imaginative when it comes to distraction: one little boy turned his toes into a piano keyboard!