In 1970 psychologist Walter Mischel famously placed a cookie in front of a group of children and gave them a choice: they could eat the cookie immediately, or they could wait until he returned from a brief errand and then be rewarded with a second. If they didn’t wait, however, they’d be allowed to eat only the first one. Not surprisingly, once he left the room, many children ate the cookie almost immediately. A few, though, resisted eating the first cookie long enough to receive the second. Mischel termed these children high-delay children.
Interestingly, the children who were best able to delay gratification subsequently did better in school and had fewer behavioral problems than the children who could only resist eating the cookie for a few minutes—and, further, ended up on average with SAT scores that were 210 points higher. As adults, the high-delay children completed college at higher rates than the other children and then went on to earn higher incomes. In contrast, the children who had the most trouble delaying gratification had higher rates of incarceration as adults and were more likely to struggle with drug and alcohol addiction.
Which all suggests that the ability to delay gratification—that is, impulse control—may be one of the most important skills to learn to have a satisfying and successful life. The question is, how do we learn it?
The answer may lie in the strategies Mischel's high-delay children used. Rather than resist the urge to eat the cookie, these children distracted themselves from the urge itself. They played with toys in the room, sang songs to themselves, and looked everywhere but at the cookie. In short, they did everything they could to put the cookie out of their minds.
Taking his cue from these high-delay children, in a second study, Mischel placed two marshmallows side by side in front of a different group of children to whom he explained, as in the previous study, that eating the first before he returned to the room would mean they couldn’t eat the second. He then instructed one group of them to imagine when he stepped out of the room how much marshmallows are like clouds: round, white, and puffy. (He instructed a control group, in contrast, to imagine how sweet and chewy and soft they were.) A third group he instructed to visualize the crunchiness and saltiness of pretzels. Perhaps not surprisingly, the children who visualized the qualities of the marshmallows that were unrelated to eating them (that is, the way in which they were similar to clouds) waited almost three times longer than children who were instructed to visualize how delicious the marshmallows would taste. Most intriguing, however, was that picturing the pleasure of eating pretzels produced the longest delay in gratification of all. Apparently, imagining the pleasure they’d feel from indulging in an unavailable temptation distracted the children even more than cognitively restructuring the way they thought about the temptation before them.
In other words, one of the most effective ways to distract ourselves from a tempting pleasure we don't want to indulge is by focusing on another pleasure. So the next time you find yourself confronted with a temptation—whether a piece of cake, a drink of alcohol, or a psychoactive drug—don't employ willpower to resist it. Send your attention somewhere else by imagining a different pleasure not immediately available to you. For if you can successfully turn your attention elsewhere until the temptation is removed from your environment or you remove yourself from its environment, the odds that you'll give in to your impulse will decrease more than with almost any other intervention you can try.
Check out Dr. Lickerman's book, The Undefeated Mind, which will be published in late 2012.