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Episode 188: Impulse Control

I was chatting with someone about controlling impulses recently because, even though in my world it's very well known, they'd never heard about Walter Mischels famous Stanford University marshmallow experiment.
It was first devised back in the late 1960's and it helped us to understand a bit about what makes us tick. The experiment begins by asking a 5 year old in advance whether they prefer marshmallows, Oreo cookies or pretzels and then later on the child is brought into a room with a table and chair. On the table is their treat of choice and they're told that if they want to eat their treat now they can do. But if they are willing to wait 15 minutes then they will be able to have 2 treats.
Some children gobble up the treat the moment they get the chance and some wait for extra. Mischel followed up on the children when they were older and found that there was a correlation with those that as a 5 year old had been able to delay gratification and their ability later in life to focus on tasks, to work at exams to get into top universities that sort of thing.
These children weren't taught anything in advance and were essentially still blank canvases, relying on their instincts to navigate life. But as adults these children were less likely to have gambling or addiction problems and had higher paid salaries. So it's worth looking at what those patient children instinctively did to help them to wait.
One thing they all had in common was some sort of mental distraction. The successful children understood that they were struggling and knew that they needed to do something better with their thoughts. And I think we can all learn from this.
It's hard to use willpower alone to hold back our impulses. Willpower is like a muscle, if you keep using it it gets tired and you'll cave in, so instead of holding yourself back from the the negative impulse by trying to suppress the thought you need new thoughts to replace them.
We know from so many studies that by trying to NOT think about something, actually encourages our brain to obsess about it all the more. Famously sitting in a room with the specific intention of NOT thinking about a white bear makes is think about white bears. And in one study at the university of Wales it was shown that by deliberately suppressing thoughts about the stereotypical behaviour of a white skinhead man. People would literally keep their distance from them more than if they hadn't been trying to suppress their thoughts.
So we know that trying NOT to think about things will rebound soon after and make us think, feel or behave even more like the version of ourselves that we're trying not to be.
So, if you’re looking for a lesson to learn from the old marshmallow test, it's that we shouldn't focus quite so much on the importance of teaching ourselves or our kids to delay gratification. Instead, it's better for us to focus on finding ways to exert control over our thoughts and behaviours through awareness and understanding.
If we can accept our thoughts or urges and understand them, rather than fear them, we're going to be in a better place. I do wonder of that's the reason for the rebound. If we're deliberately trying NOT to do something then our instincts assume it's something that could be dangerous to us and so it focusses on it more rather than less.
If you need a distraction from the thoughts then you may well need to learn the opening rap to the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air or the theme to The Fall Guy. I've said before that TV themes can work quite well. Having an ear worm stuck in your head is going to be better than the thoughts of self harm or of a loved one having a car accident, Bohemian Rhapsody is quite a good one too, that's helped me out a few times when I've been struggling with something.
What you do is up to you, just don't expect your thoughts to stop by themselves. Accept them, understand them and move on from them.