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Would Tolstoy Pass The Marshmallow Test?

Tolstoy set goals and rules as quickly as he flouted them. What does his life reveal about self-control?

At the age of 18, Leo Tolstoy was a law school dropout who spent his nights drinking, gambling, and consorting with women. Yet he was obsessed with self-control. His "Rules of Life," written shortly before he left school, include: "Have a goal for your whole life, a goal for one section of your life, a goal for a shorter period and a goal for the year; a goal for every month, a goal for every week, a goal for every day, a goal for every hour and for every minute, and sacrifice the lesser goal to the greater.... Keep away from women....Kill desire by work."

Tolstoy was a man of ferocious complexity and contradiction, of a scope that Walter Mischel could appreciate. Mischel, a professor of psychology at Columbia University, is a towering figure in personality research whose first popular book, The Marshmallow Test , summarizes his decades of work on self-control. But self-regulation is only one delicious (and sometimes misunderstood) entrée. For it is also thanks to Mischel that we consider the degree to which situation, not character, dictates behavior, and the fact that willpower—and much more—is only as predictable as the context in which it operates.

His so-called "marshmallow test," first conducted at Stanford University in the late 1960s, monitors the ability of a child to resist a treat when left alone with it. Mischel's subjects understood that they could eat the treat immediately if they rang a bell to summon the researcher, but they'd receive two treats if they could await the researcher's return. Four-year-old paragons of executive function waited up to 15 minutes; school-age kids with "high delay" skills waited so long that Mischel himself could no longer stand to watch their heroic juvenile abnegation.

The test is noteworthy because long-term follow-up studies show that a child's ability to delay reward correlates with academic success and adult income, as well as with affective powers such as the ability to tolerate stress and rejection. The "cooling" mental transformations that help a kid wait agonizing minutes to consume a marshmallow—imagining the candy is a cloud, putting a frame around it to make it abstract—are the bedrock processes that allow that same person to stay future-focused enough to earn a college degree or to reliably invest in a 401k. Those with the ability to delay have a well-oiled prefrontal cortex that successfully regulates their abstract thinking as well as impulse control.

Mainstream interest in Mischel's work reflects our culture's obsession with executive function or its lack (ADHD). We're in the midst of a cognitive gold rush on self-control and grit, perhaps the two most valorized skills of our young century. Ironically, Mischel's studies of personality, which are legendary among psychologists but largely unknown to the public, suggest that there are natural checks on self-regulation. Self-control, like most behaviors, is radically contingent. Character and willpower bend depending on the environment and the individual's level of motivation.

Tolstoy was a maelstrom of lapses in his personal life. He fought incessantly with his wife. He was critical and demanding of his family even as he preached a love of humanity. This may surprise some people, but it would not surprise Mischel. He argues that the key to exercising self-control and to understanding why people appear to behave erratically resides in the slimmest of phrases: "if-then."

The degree of conscientiousness we bring to a task at our job does not predict how conscientious we'll be about bill paying or interacting with loved ones when we arrive home. It is predictive of how conscientious we'll continue to be in work-related endeavors. Mischel and his longtime collaborator Yuichi Shoda of the University of Washington propose that personality inscribes itself in if-then behavioral patterns, which "characterize most people when their behavior is closely examined," Mischel writes. "The behavioral signature of personality specifies what the individual does predictably if particular situational triggers occur. These behavioral signatures have been found with adults as well as children and for everything from conscientiousness and sociability to anxiety and stress."

Much that confounds us about others can be explained by behavioral signatures, including the downfall of presidents and the prevalence of double lives. People behave "stupidly" when they fail to exert self-control because their limbic system flares into action. They act "out of character" simply because immediate rewards trump cortex-driven restraint. A man who is self-disciplined enough to win a Rhodes Scholarship and the White House abandoned impulse control at the sight of a comely intern. For decades, Charles Lindbergh had three secret families in Europe, in addition to his five surviving children with Anne Morrow Lindbergh. His priapic signature was quite reliable: If he was in Europe, then he sought out and had ongoing affairs with vulnerable young women.

Where if-then signatures are predictive, if-then implementation plans are prescriptive, isolating triggers in hopes of calming them. Mischel argues that keeping journals and soliciting feedback are key to pinpointing hot spots that erode one's willpower, and once known, a plan ("If approached by X, disengage") will "take the effort out of effortful control." The more automatic the plan, the more likely it is to work.

Most elementally, as Mischel argues and Tolstoy's life floridly demonstrates, we possess the capacity for change, whether we use mental transformations to quench our "hot" impulses or enact a creative regimen that produces work for the ages.

The man who was capable of writing Anna Karenina and War and Peace was obviously capable of graduating from law school. He was capable of setting and reaching goals that would make most people's heads spin, even if he activated the goals selectively. Perhaps an omniscient biographer could map the if-then filigrees in Tolstoy's life, as scattered as constellations in the night sky but ultimately just as predictable. We are, each of us, that complicated.

Mischel has said that he is most interested in the subjects who "failed" the marshmallow test but went on to succeed in life. There's no way to know whether Tolstoy would fit the bill, but if so, Mischel would have an idea why.