In the late 1960s, the psychologist Walter Mischel began a simple experiment with four-year old children. He invited the kids into a tiny room, containing a desk and a chair, and asked them to pick a treat from a tray of marshmallows, cookies, and pretzel sticks. Mischel then made the four-year olds an offer: they could either eat one treat right away or, if they were willing to wait while he stepped out for a few minutes, they could have two treats when he returned. Not surprisingly, nearly every kid chose to wait.
At the time, psychologists assumed that the ability to delay gratification — to get that second marshmallow or cookie — depended on willpower. Some people simply had more willpower than others, which allowed them to resist tempting sweets and save money for retirement.
However, after watching hundreds of kids participate in the marshmallow experiment, Mischel concluded that this standard model was wrong. He came to realize that willpower was inherently weak, and that children that tried to outlast the treat — gritting their teeth in the face of temptation — soon lost the battle, often within thirty seconds.
Instead, Mischel discovered something interesting when he studied the tiny percentage of kids who could successfully wait for the second treat. Without exception, these "high delayers" all relied on the same mental strategy: they found a way to keep themselves from thinking about the treat, directing their gaze away from the yummy marshmallow. Some covered their eyes or played hide-and-seek underneath the desk. Others sang songs from "Sesame Street," or repeatedly tied their shoelaces, or pretended to take a nap. Their desire wasn't defeated — it was merely forgotten.
Mischel refers to this skill as the "strategic allocation of attention," and he argues that it's the skill underlying self-control. Too often, we assume that willpower is about having strong moral fiber. But that's wrong — willpower is really about properly directing the spotlight of attention, learning how to control that short list of thoughts in working memory. It's about realizing that if we're thinking about the marshmallow we're going to eat it, which is why we need to look away.
What's interesting is that this cognitive skill isn't just a useful skill for dieters. Instead, it seems to be a core part of success in the real world. For instance, when Mischel followed up with the initial subjects 13 years later — they were now high school seniors — he realized that performance on the marshmallow task was highly predictive on a vast range of metrics. Those kids who struggled to wait at the age of four were also more likely to have behavioral problems, both in school and at home. They struggled in stressful situations, often had trouble paying attention, and found it difficult to maintain friendships. Most impressive, perhaps, were the academic numbers: The little kid who could wait fifteen minutes for their marshmallow had an S.A.T. score that was, on average, two hundred and ten points higher than that of the kid who could wait only thirty seconds.
These correlations demonstrate the importance of learning to strategically allocate our attention. When we properly control the spotlight, we can resist negative thoughts and dangerous temptations. We can walk away from fights and improve our odds against addiction. Our decisions are driven by the facts and feelings bouncing around the brain — the allocation of attention allows us to direct this haphazard process, as we consciously select the thoughts we want to think about.
Furthermore, this mental skill is only getting more valuable. We live, after all, in the age of information, which makes the ability to focus on the important information incredibly important. (Herbert Simon said it best: "A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.") The brain is a bounded machine and the world is a confusing place, full of data and distractions — intelligence is the ability to parse the data so that it makes just a little bit more sense. Like willpower, this ability requires the strategic allocation of attention.
One final thought: In recent decades, psychology and neuroscience have severely eroded classical notions of free will. The unconscious mind, it turns out, is most of the mind. And yet, we can still control the spotlight of attention, focusing on those ideas that will help us succeed. In the end, this may be the only thing we can control. We don't have to look at the marshmallow.