Thursday, November 17, 2011

Resisting the Marshmallow: Community Psychology & Willpower

Though most famous for the Stanford Prison Experiment, social psychologist Philip Zimbardo was for a while more interested in talking about a much gentler-sounding (though similarly cruel) study: the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment.

In the marshmallow experiment, 4-year olds were presented with the choice of eating one treat (e.g. a marshmallow) immediately or waiting and getting two treats. Years later, those who had delayed gratification had a host of better outcomes, including significantly better SAT scores. Zimbardo was interested in this experiment as it related to his theories about time and future orientation, but most would describe it in terms of simple self-control.

Yet there is very little that is simple about self-control. This is the subject of a recent book by Baumeister & Tierny titled “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.” The title of the book sounds like it may have a simplistic “pull yourself up from your bootstraps” message, and indeed the beginning of the book reads like a rejection of the tenets of community psychology, and any other discipline that attends to societal influences on individual behavior.

But is the concept of willpower really at odds with community psychology?

The authors go on to explain how, in study after study, they found that willpower isn’t really what we think it is. It’s not really about exerting some extraordinary feat of energy and resistance. Rather, willpower is like a muscle, something that can be depleted in the short-term, but that can also be built up in the long term. Exerting willpower does take energy, in the form of glucose, which can also be depleted through decision making, but people who appear to have a lot of self-control use their willpower to build up habits that make it easier for them to make good choices without using up energy. The fact that willpower requires glucose is part of what makes dieting so difficult – the very thing that you’re trying to resist is also the source of what you need in order to resist temptation.

Individual agency is certainly the emphasis of the book. The authors present a number of useful tips for improving individual willpower, such as:
  • setting up a “bright line” – clearly defined limit of what you can and can’t do 
  • precommitting – deciding ahead of time what you’re going to do and making it difficult or impossible to do otherwise
  • monitoring – whether it’s your diet or your wallet, being aware of what you’re doing
  • positive procrastination – such as telling yourself “I can eat that cake later”
  • exercising – working out your willpower ‘muscle’ in small ways such as correcting your posture
  • eating – if you find yourself having trouble making decisions or pushing through on a task, consider how long it’s been since you’ve fed your brain, and stick to foods that will sustain in the long-term
Yet the authors also discuss contextual factors that influence an individual’s ability to successfully exert self-control (e.g. being in an orderly room makes one more likely to think about long-term rewards than being in a messy room). Furthermore, it stands to reason that if an individual is in an environment that provides numerous sources of ego depletion, there will come a point where, barring Gandhi-like reserves of willpower, they will snap.

Imagine the following scenario: You get up to go to work. You pass four fast food restaurants on your way to the bus, which is late. You finally get to work and your boss berates you for your lateness. You suck it up, repressing an emotional outburst, because hey, it's the boss. You then spend the next several hours persisting through a series of uninteresting tasks. At some point, your reserves of willpower will be gone - you'll have spent them resisting, repressing, and persisting. If you didn't have a good breakfast, this will happen much sooner. It may result in you losing focus on your job, being short with a co-worker, or overindulging at lunch, but at some point, it will happen.

As community psychologists, it's up to us to make these connections and help build environments and social structures that make it easier for individuals to make the best choices for themselves and their communities.

Gina Cardazone, M.A.
University of Hawai`i, Mānoa


  1. How interesting and what a fresh lens to think about how we can promote environmental factors that foster strong will power or at least choose where we can leverage the system. Thank You

  2. That video is exactly what it's like to have willpower, minus all the internal censoring we develop as we grow up.