I was puzzled. While volunteering at a local homeless shelter, I saw women dealing with poverty, homelessness, and emotional upheaval. Yet some would set goals and move forward in their lives, while others would not.  

When Sophie first met with me, her eyes filled with tears as she told me about being laid off and losing her home in the economic downturn. Yet when I asked where she found strength, she smiled and spoke of her faith, her brown eyes shining. She signed up for a computer class, updated her résumé and began looking for work. Within a month, she’d gotten a part-time job and was checking out affordable housing. But Betty just slumped down in her chair, complaining about one problem after another. When I asked what brought her a sense of strength, she would shake her head, reciting a litany of betrayals and disappointments. Week after week, I’d ask her to set a goal, one step she could take to begin moving forward, but each time she’d bring up a new problem, never managing to follow through. I left our sessions feeling emotionally drained.

Although both women were in the same homeless shelter, they were living in different emotional environments.

Attitude is a powerful influence on our lives. In Walter Mischel’s classic marshmallow study (Mischel, Shoda, & Peake, 1988), an experimenter told preschool children that they could eat one marshmallow right away as she left the room or wait for her to return to get two marshmallows. Years later as adolescents, those children who waited—who could delay gratification--had better grades, higher SAT scores, less substance abuse, greater achievement and personal well-being and were better able to cope with stress.  

Yet a recent follow-up study reveals the importance of emotional environment. Repeating the marshmallow study, Kidd, Palmeri, and Aslin (2013) first asked children to work on an art project. For one group, the researcher brought out a tightly sealed mason jar filled with old, beat-up crayons, then told the children he would go get better art supplies, and returned with a large tray with new crayons and other exciting art supplies. In the second group, the researcher did the same thing but then returned, saying he couldn’t find any new art supplies so they’d have to use the old crayons. Later, during the marshmallow test, the children in the first (reliable) condition waited significantly longer than those in the second (unreliable) condition, demonstrating the importance of emotional environment. The first group of children experienced an atmosphere of trust and stability where people keep their promises. The second group did not.

Context makes a huge difference in our lives. In a reliable, trustworthy world, impulse control--waiting for the greater reward--can bring us greater success. But in an unstable environment, instant gratification is the rational choice: getting what you can before someone takes it away. It’s the difference between growing up in a stable home environment or an atmosphere of deprivation, domestic violence, and addicted or emotionally unavailable caregivers. Back in the homeless shelter, Betty’s world was chaotic and unpredictable. She couldn’t plan because she didn’t believe in tomorrow, while Sophie’s world view was bolstered by her strong religious faith that brought greater stability and order to her world.

How much do unstable conditions undermine impulse control in our country today—with people caught up in compulsive shopping, credit card debt, junk food diets, road rage, and a wide range of addictive behaviors? How many of us live in an emotional ghetto, an unstable world where we feel we are not safe,  reaching for instant gratification because we can’t believe in tomorrow?


Kidd, C., Palmeri, H., Aslin, R. N. (2013). Rational snacking: Young children’s decision-making on the marshmallow task is moderated by beliefs about environmental reliability. Cognition, 126, 109-114.

 Mischel, W., Shoda, Y., & Peake, P. K. (1988). The nature of adolescent competencies predicted by preschool delay of gratification. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, 687-696.


Diane Dreher is a best-selling author, personal coach, and professor at Santa Clara University. Her latest book is Your Personal Renaissance: 12 Steps to Finding Your Life’s True Calling.

Follow Diane on Twitter: Diane Dreher (@dianedreher) on Twitter

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