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The surprising connection between willpower and marshmallows.

According to most psychological scientists, willpower can be defined as: The ability to delay gratification, resisting short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals. The capacity to override an unwanted thought, feeling, or impulse.

Many clients seek help through hypnotherapy as they believe they have no (or low) will power. This is especially the case concerning smoking, drinking and eating. Many people think that they can improve their lives if only they had more of this mysterious thing called willpower. With more self-control we would all eat better, exercise regularly, drink less, save more, stop procrastinating, and achieve all sorts of important goals. Sounds great!

In 2011, 27% of Stress in America survey respondents reported that lack of willpower was the most significant barrier to change. Certainly willpower and self-control has an important part to play.

To achieve a desired change you first of all need to establish the motivation for that change and set a clear goal. Then you need to monitor your behaviour toward that goal. Then willpower or self-control comes in to play.

So what has all this got to do with marshmallows?

The Stanford marshmallow experiment is one of the most influential pieces of research in to willpower. It was a study on delayed gratification in 1972 led by psychologist Walter Mischel, a professor at Stanford University. This laid the groundwork for the modern study of self-control.

Mischel and his colleagues presented young children with a plate of treats such as marshmallows. The child was then told by a researcher that they have to leave the room for a few minutes and they gave the child a very simple choice. If the child waits until the researcher returns, they can have two marshmallows. If the child can’t wait, they could ring a bell and the researcher would come back immediately, but they would be allowed to eat only one marshmallow. The thinking being that the children with good self-control sacrifice the immediate pleasure in order to get two marshmallows at some later point (they also used pretzel sticks depending on the child’s preference but it has become famous as the marshmallow test).

The experiment demonstrated that effective delay is not achieved by merely thinking about something other than what we want, but rather, it depends on suppressive and avoidance mechanisms that reduce frustration. The frustration of waiting for a desired reward is demonstrated nicely by the authors when describing the behavior of the children.

“They made up quiet songs…hid their head in their arms, pounded the floor with their feet, fiddled playfully and teasingly with the signal bell, verbalized the contingency…prayed to the ceiling, and so on. In one dramatically effective self-distraction technique, after obviously experiencing much agitation, a little girl rested her head, sat limply, relaxed herself, and proceeded to fall sound asleep.”

Mischel revisited the test subjects as teenagers and found that those who had waited longer for the marshmallows were more likely to score higher grades at school. Their parents were more likely to rate them as having a greater ability to plan, handle stress, respond to reason, exhibit self-control in frustrating situations, and concentrate without becoming distracted. Recently Mischel and colleagues tracked down some of the subjects who were now in their 40s. They tested the subjects’ willpower strength with a further tests and the results had largely held up over four decades. The children who were less successful at resisting the marshmallow all those years ago did more poorly on the self-control task as adults.

So will power is the basic ability to delay gratification. Ex-smokers give up the (perceived) enjoyment of a cigarette in order to experience benefit from better health. Those wanting to lose weight will forfeit the slice of pizza or cake so to help them lose a few extra pounds and feel better.

Following the marshmallow test, Mischel and his colleagues developed a framework to explain our ability to delay gratification. They proposed a “hot-and-cool” way of thinking about self control and impulses..

The cool system is cognitive in nature, a thinking system, It incorporates knowledge about sensations, feelings, actions and goals—reminding yourself, for instance, why you shouldn’t eat the marshmallow. The hot system is impulsive and emotional. It is responsible for fast, reflexive responses to certain triggers—such as popping the marshmallow into your mouth without thinking of the long-term implications.

The research showed that some people may be more or less susceptible to hot triggers, to emotional responses that may influence their behaviour throughout life. When we are thinking consciously we know the right thing to do but the impulsive part is often unconscious. Consciously many people know they should stop smoking, or drink less alcohol, or exercise more. But the hot system takes over. What may be called a ‘moment of weakness’. It will happen time and time again unless we work with the unconscious.

Other studies have examined brain activity in some subjects using functional magnetic resonance imaging. When presented with something tempting, participants with low self-control showed brain patterns that differed from those with high self-control. The researchers found that the prefrontal cortex (a region that controls executive functions, such as making choices) was more active in subjects with higher self-control. The ventral striatum (a region thought to process desires and rewards) showed increased activity in those with lower self-control.

However there are things we can all do to help boost our will power and self-control.


Meditation is a great habit to get in to for many many reasons. Also by meditating you are training the brain to focus and resist the urge to wander. You are practising self-control. Research shows that after just 2-3 days of practicing meditation for 10 minutes, your brain will be able to focus better, you will have more energy, and you will be less stressed. include You will have improved self-awareness and self-esteem, as well as self control.


At some point we have all probably crammed for a test, frantically put together a presentation for work or last-minute preparation for a job interview. It is amazing how hyper productive we can be when we have a looming deadline. So by creating self-imposed deadlines, you can work your willpower in the same way. Simply pick something on your to-do list, perhaps something that you have been putting off for a while. Set a deadline and make stick to it. Those who followed this process for two weeks not only through their to-do lists, they also improved their diets, exercised more, and cut back on cigarettes and alcohol.

Be more mindful

Thinking about why you are making your any decision will increase your ability to focus and resist temptations. Try to be mindful in a situation that may otherwise be automatic, just think about what you are doing and why you are doing it. It may be questioning why you are eating toast instead of fruit for breakfast, or why exactly you put two sugars in your coffee. Thinking consciously about a typical unconscious behaviour will increase your focus and self-control.

Hypnotherapy can help

Hypnosis can help you understand and take control of your thoughts and behaviours. Through hypnotherapy, you embrace positive and impactful changes. Hypnosis is a completely natural state. We all go in and out of it many times a day. This could be when we drift off or daydream, just before we fall asleep or just as we wake up. That moment when you are walking or driving somewhere and you can't actually remember getting there! Those automatic, or unconscious behaviours!

Utilising this completely natural state, hypnotherapy uses guided relaxation, intense concentration, and focused attention to achieve a heightened state of awareness.

Hypnotherapy bypasses the conscious mind and allows us to work directly with the unconscious mind without those conscious barriers. In trance, you are in a resourceful state, when any positive suggestions that I give to your mind will have maximum impact. So we can then work directly with the ‘hot’ system, the impulses that lead us to make choices we then regret.


Malcolm Struthers Hypnotherapy - Online and in-person in Dumfries & Galloway


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