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What marshmallows can teach us about decision-making

It all comes down to intertemporal choice.

How’s that title for a mishmash of colloquial and academic discourse? Many of you will have some familiarity with the now-famous “Marshmallow Experiment”. Briefly, way back in the late 1960s, a research team led by Walter Mischel, conducted experiments in which they examined young children’s ability to put off temptation for immediate gratification in order to receive even greater bounty (e.g. you can have 1 marshmallow now, or 2 if you wait a few minutes). What made this study remarkable is that the researchers were able to track the preschool aged children into adulthood; in 1990 they published evaluations of the children’s trajectories and concluded that self-control as a preschooler had profound consequences later in life in multiple domains such as financial wealth, relationship happiness and health.

The original academic paper, published in 1970, has been cited in other academic articles a whopping 12,283 times; a Google search of “marshmallow experiment” yields 95,800 results. The study has spawned an entire genre of psychological research that includes decision-making (as well as things like perseverence, emotion regulation, etc.). Let me be clear, there is plenty of disagreement about the conclusions made by Mischel and colleagues, not the least of which is related to the fact that those preschoolers all happened to be attending preschool at Stanford University and were largely the children of Stanford faculty (see more on that here). However, the debate is largely related to how one comes to possess self-control (i.e. is it a characteristic some are born with and some aren’t, or is it shaped by the economic circumstances in which I grow up), not whether it is in fact a characteristic with long term benefit.

What I’m interested in at the moment is the notion of self-controland what contemporary research is revealing with respect to how we can cultivate it through emotional processes rather than cognitive processes. In this context, self-control refers to the ability to forego short term gratification for larger long-term benefits (called intertemporal choice in psychobabble).

There’s overwhelming evidence/experience confirming that we humans have a hard time delaying gratification. The way psychologists (and behavioral economists) talk about this is using the term discounting. What happens is that we discount the true value of future benefits when comparing them to immediate benefits.

Throughout the 1970s, 80s, and 90s psychologists focused on the role of cognition in this type of decision-making. They pondered why we would make such irrationaldecisions to discount the future, and they developed ideas and techniques about how we could avoid doing so. This body of work falls under a couple of large and relatively well known umbrellas, namely willpowerand grit. The short answer to the why of discounting has to do with our (usually informal) calculations about the probability that the future benefit will actually happen against the certainty of the short-term experience. The techniques for outsmarting the mind’s tendency to discount revolved around how to think differently about the situation we face, to focus on the benefits we could imagine, to increase our commitment to our long term goals, and even to merely distract ourselves with other activities until the temptation subsided.

Cognitive techniques work to an extent. Willpower can be cultivated, as can grit, and doing so yields benefits. These benefits come with some costs – surprise. Broadly speaking, both approaches are stressful to develop and to employ. Their availability can be depleted through use and must be replenished through rest (and thus no pressure to employ). While people with high levels of willpower and grit do succeed at their goals more often than those with lesser levels, they also experience more intense suffering when they do not succeed (having invested so much energy and sacrifice into succeeding, failure is particularly painful). In short, it can be seen as a type-A personality approach to life that has some benefits at the cost of chronic stress.

I haven’t eaten a marshmallow in several decades, so why am I writing about this? Because the general problem of considering long-term verses short-term outcomes appears so frequently in our decision-making. Whether it is a decision about having a second helping of mashed potatoes, whether or not to go to the gym, go to graduate school, get married, or have children, all of these scenarios involve intertemporal choice. There are multiple billion-dollar industries built around convincing us that we can purchase solutions to our challenged ability to postpone short-term gratification, for good reason – we want it so badly and we struggle to obtain it.

As I mentioned, willpower and grit have merit and they can be cultivated. I think doing so is worthwhile, provided we don’t over-rely on those methods and use them when they aren’t necessary, Meditation, particularly mindfulness meditation and concentration meditation replenish and nourish our willpower – for free, and they reduce stress so it’s pretty much win-win.

There is even more good news. Contemporary research has shed light on the powerful role of pro-social emotions (think gratitude and compassion) on our ability to postpone gratification. For now, spend some time thinking about your personal experiences of applying willpower to achieve goals. Within your reflections, think about decisions like getting married, or quitting a job, how does the idea of willpower resonate with those kinds of decisions? What else seems important?

In my next post I’ll dive into the role emotions play in intertemporal choices and what we can do to take advantage of this powerful influence.

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