Changing Your Mental Fortitude, Starting with Marshmallows

Is this region of the brain directly responsible for performance?

By Richard Restak, MD, The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

What does a famous experiment involving marshmallows and four-year-olds teach us about the power of delayed gratification? Dr. Restak connects these findings to the effectiveness of deliberate practice and the genetics versus hard work debate when it comes to success.

Boy looking at marshmallow on desk
A famous study of the marshmallow test involved four-year-olds and their ability to forego immediate gratification in order to receive a greater delayed reward. Photo By Josie Garner / Shutterstock

Automatic and Controlled Processing

Deliberate practice is the type of focused, intentional practice that separates professionals from amateurs. To understand how deliberate practice works, you need to know the difference between automatic and controlled processing. 

Controlled processing is when we take each piece of a process and give the proper attention to it, spending time to get it right. For example, when learning tennis, you focus on your grip, your forehand, your backhand, and so on. 

Eventually, through enough repetition, we get to the point that the process becomes automatic. In deliberate practice, controlled processing takes precedence over automatic processing. 

Later, the process will become more automatic—for the most part. For example, a surgeon can perform the steps of a surgery automatically, as these processes have become ingrained through years of practice, but if something unexpected occurs during the surgery, he must switch back to controlled processing.

The Marshmallow Test

Choosing controlled over automatic processing confers performance benefits. There’s a famous study called the marshmallow test by Walter Mischel. 

The study was done with four-year-olds sitting in a waiting room with their mothers. They were told that a professor was going to come in, take them into the back room, and ask them a few questions. 

A stern but friendly man in a white coat took the children into the back room and gave them a choice. They could either eat a marshmallow immediately, or they could wait 15 minutes and then receive a second marshmallow as a reward for waiting. If they chose the first option, they wouldn’t get the second marshmallow.

The average wait until the first marshmallow became irresistible was three minutes. However, 30% held out for 15 minutes and got the second marshmallow. 

As adolescents, this group scored 200 points higher on the SAT. As adults, they had more education; higher socioeconomic status; and were less likely to smoke, drink, or use drugs. 

The marshmallow test measured the ability of preschool children to forego immediate gratification in the interest of later receiving a greater delayed reward. This ability relates to the frontal lobes, which are responsible for motivation, executive control, and future memory (anticipating the future based on the past). 

Though the frontal lobes are still developing into adulthood, 30% of four-year-olds were nevertheless able to wait 15 minutes. Although no studies have explored the connection, Dr. Restak suspects that the children who held out the longest would be more likely to engage in deliberate practice, which is also governed by the frontal lobes. 

In foreseeing consequences, and preferring more later to less now, the children were drawing upon their frontal lobes. If there is a genetic component to top performance, perhaps it concerns the power of the frontal lobes and the influence of the controlled-deliberate system. 

Genetics Versus Deliberate Practice

Dr. Restak believes that one’s success in applying the mental discipline needed to acquire expertise in a particular field is a combination of genetics and deliberate practice. Regardless of your genetic disposition, the longer you persist, the better the results. This relates to K. Anders Ericsson’s 10-year rule, which states that you generally need 10 years of deliberate practice to acquire mastery in a field. 

One possible exception is Mozart, who demonstrated musical expertise at the age of 10. However, there’s much dispute about when he actually became acquainted with music. 

It could have been close to two years of age, which would mean it took him eight years to acquire mastery—pretty close to the 10-year rule. In any case, there has only been one Mozart. Deliberate practice and hard work is the best course of action for most people.

Overall, research is confirming that exceptional performers are not necessarily endowed with superior brains. Rather, the brain—thanks to its plasticity—can be modified by deliberate practice. 

That approach will enable you to achieve high levels of performance in your area of interest. However, you must be willing to put in the effort required to achieve mastery.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.
Dr. Richard Restak is Clinical Professor of Neurology at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. He earned his MD from Georgetown University School of Medicine. Professor Restak also maintains an active private practice in neurology and neuropsychiatry in Washington, D.C.