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When do you exert your willpower? Maybe you resist the temptation to eat another cookie or send a text message while driving. Studies show that childhood willpower may predict willpower in adult life — particularly when it comes to emotional situations.
Walter Mischel’s famous marshmallow test
The value of self control was captured in psychologist Walter Mischel’s 1970 famous test. Mischel placed preschoolers in front of a marshmallow and gave them a choice: they could eat it right away, or wait 15 minutes and get second one.
Despite the obvious benefit, two thirds of the children devoured the first marshmallow within a few minutes. Meanwhile, those who delayed their gratification were more likely, as teenagers, to have stronger self control, handle stress more effectively, and even score higher on the SAT.
40 years after the marshmallow test
In 2011, B.J. Casey at Cornell University assessed willpower in nearly 60 people from Mischel’s original study. They found that participants with higher self control as children still exhibited higher self control as adults. And those who couldn’t wait for the second marshmallow — over 40 years ago — still had lower self control.
However, these differences in willpower occurred primarily when the task involved emotional stimuli. In other words, exerting willpower may depend on your sensitivity to emotional situations.
Casey used neuroimaging techniques to explore this theory. He examined brain activity in participants as they tried to ignore photos of happy faces. Those with stronger willpower showed more activity in the prefrontal cortex — the region associated with impulse control. Meanwhile, those with less willpower had stronger activity in the ventral striatum, a region involved in processing rewards and positive social cues.
Casey’s results have some fascinating implications: people with stronger willpower may use their brains differently than their more impulsive (and perhaps more sensitive) peers.
How willpower may be strengthened over time
Decades of research suggest that willpower is like a muscle. It gets fatigued when exercised — but also may get stronger the more you use it. Some researchers have found that just 2 weeks of willpower training can result in improved performance on self control assessments.