How to do better on the marshmallow test?
April 7, 2020 2:37 PM   Subscribe

How can I improve my impulse control? How can I instill the values of non-instant gratification/teach my toddler to have good impulse control?

I’d say I have average impulse control, I guess. I grew up poor and didn’t have great role models, with addicts and gamblers at home and generally scarce resources. My issues tend to be around money, but I was also a smoker and really struggled with quitting. Also simple things like being tired and letting myself zone out on the couch rather than getting up to do the dishes. (Maybe things that are considered adulting I’m not doing so well on, as I choose to be an adolescent in some ways).

Maybe because of my background, I tend to covet a lot of material things but also worry about spending. I don’t make a lot of money; enough to buy new stuff when needed or to get my kid a couple new toys (ie, $25-50 each) every month. I find that my impulses — like buying a new toy, do add up and I feel very guilty, but I don’t generally not buy the thing. I guess because the hit I get from that instant gratification just wins out for me.

I’d like to get better at this, and teach my kid how to have better control of impulses. Right now, kid is at an age where everything is now now now so I want to have realistic expectations, but I worry that I am setting a bad example. (My co-parent is a bit the opposite of me, and where I will buy a new pair of shoes when mine start to wear, my partner will literally wear a hole through both shoes before investing in a new pair. Partner has a much larger savings account to show for it.)

So, what can I do to get better at impulse control? How can I teach my kid to have good impulse control? It has been a source of frustration for me and I would like to spare my kid some of the hardships I’ve dealt with, if possible.
posted by robertthebruce to Science & Nature (22 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Let's take a few things into consideration:

Fact: consumption scales linearly with income. So generally poor peoples' impulse control as it pertains to consumer spending is exactly the same as wealthy people.

Not doing work around the house has nothing to do with impulse control. If someone else did them in your place, can you imagine that they occasionally were also tired, but did chores anyways?

Quitting smoking may or may not have anything to do with impulse control. My dad quit for 5 years, and started again because he liked smoking and missed it. He does not have poor impulse control. Liking smoking may be de classe, but it's very possible.

Are you buying extra stuff for your kid because you don't see them that much? Not clear if your co-parent and you split time.

Young kids are always "now now now", I certainly was and have perfectly fine impulse control as a grown up.

To get better at impulse control and not buy unnecessary things, make a list with the price and date, and if you still want it some arbitrary X number of days later, say 30, then buy it then. If it slips your mind and you don't even recall what it was, then you didn't really want it.
posted by The_Vegetables at 2:53 PM on April 7, 2020 [4 favorites]

Shop at Good Will and other thrift-used stuff stores.
Have an actual limit on the number toys - maybe one a month?
And each Christmas, all of you thin your stuff that you haven't used for the year and re-gift it or donate back to the thrift stores.
Turn off the tv and read to your kid.
posted by Mesaverdian at 2:55 PM on April 7, 2020 [1 favorite]

Same with a kid as a grownup. Give them an allowance for school work or (maybe chores - I don't personally like kids as tiny workers) . Put it on a list, and buy a thing once every 2 months.

If you have money problems, show a kid how much things cost (to a reasonable degree). Kids get that money is not unlimited and understand priorities.
posted by The_Vegetables at 2:56 PM on April 7, 2020

For what it's worth, when other researchers tried to reproduce the marshmallow test they were unable to replicate it, and people have been reconsidering what the test actually measures. From The Atlantic: Why Rich Kids Are So Good at the Marshmallow Test
Affluence—not willpower—seems to be what’s behind some kids’ capacity to delay gratification.
posted by Lexica at 2:58 PM on April 7, 2020 [26 favorites]

I've always been a fan of the Gift To Your Future Self concept. That way you reward yourself at the moment of impulse by feeling good about giving a gift. But it really kicks in when, at the time your future self cashes in the gift, that you recognize it and say thanks to your past self. So skip the donut by considering the skipping a gift to your Future Self. But be sure, when you step on the scale and you're down a pound, to thank Past Self for being so cool.
posted by lpsguy at 3:03 PM on April 7, 2020 [6 favorites]

Don't use the screens from home. My impulse control improved a TON after we stopped having home internet.
posted by aniola at 3:30 PM on April 7, 2020 [1 favorite]

It sounds like you're doing alright, actually! You quit smoking, that is huge! It sounds like you are paying your bills and providing a safe and healthy environment for your kid.

You need to have a compelling reason to delay gratification, otherwise you're just denying yourself things for no reason. Do you have something you wish you were doing with the money you spend on toys? Maybe a larger savings account so you feel financially secure? Starting a 529 account for the kid? Figure that out, so spending is a choice between the toy and ___, not just do I get the toy or not. Make a budget so you can see those choices written out in front of you.

And yeah, the marshmallow test works for affluent kids who are pretty sure they're actually going to get the two marshmallows later. Set consistent expectations with your kid, do what you say you'll do, and you'll be on the right track there.
posted by momus_window at 3:37 PM on April 7, 2020 [14 favorites]

I think I have extremely above average long term planning skills, which includes pre-planning precisely how impulsive I am able to be.

I create a lot of figurative hope chests. They're little thought buckets where I drop all of my oh-wouldn't-this-be-so-nice-to-haves. The thoughts pile up, I can edit them as my tastes change, and all of these wants are always there for me, waiting for me and available to fetishize over, until I am ready to do the actual thing. (Sometimes, for my very complex hope chests, I will make an actual list in google keep. I bet pinterest board would also be good for this.) I fill up my hope chests with things I read, videos I watch on youtube, single interest subreddits, etc--information that either contributes to the hoard or helps me refine it into a smaller and more delicate box.

My figurative hope chests have included such things as:
-dyeing my hair, which I eventually did, but I waited until a time when my work life was stable and I wasn't going to jeopardize a paycheck by suddenly having purple hair
-getting a dog (this one included a literal hope chest during the last several months, where I filled a dog crate with all of the toys and supplies for the dog I didn't have yet), which I eventually did, but I waited until a time when I had a suitable apartment and enough income to support another living thing
-buying a house, which I haven't done yet, but I am now finally able to do
-SO MANY games on Steam, which is the perfect example of my hope chest system working perfectly, because otherwise I'd spend $$$$ on games I'd never play

I also set a small amount of money from every paycheck via direct deposit into a separate savings account just for impulse spending. It's small and it's separate and it's visible, and I use it to cover my true impulse purchases, like when I'm browsing instagram and there's a cute t-shirt. Is there dedicated impulse money to cover it? BUY. It's an impulse purchase and it hits that little dopamine center, but it's pre-planned.
posted by phunniemee at 3:38 PM on April 7, 2020 [8 favorites]

I grew up poor too so I feel you on several fronts.

I think toddler age is too young to put too many expectations on a child re: impulse control, toddlers mostly live in the now and don't have the brain development needed for a lot of self-regulation skills, by the time they're 5-6 they will likely be a lot better with some of what concerns you. You might want to look into concepts like growth mindset if you want to encourage healthy mental habits though, and consider getting them to help you with simple chores as they get older.

My son loved new toys, now now now, and when he entered gradeschool got better at being able to understand concepts like money, the cost of things, that he couldn't have the big toy or maybe even not a small toy that day without melting down. He's in grade 3 now and if he really really wants something will talk about it but understands he can't always have it right away (I tell him "maybe for your birthday, maybe for christmas", etc.). I don't limit toys too much but I don't give him everything he wants the minute he wants it, and I've helped him develop an enjoyment of activities that aren't material, like he likes going out in nature, practicing a couple of sports, we do crafts together, those sorts of things as well as good friends will hopefully be what helps him to grow up in a healthy way. I tell him up front if he's going to be able to pick a small toy or two out if we go shopping. My son has more than I did growing up and instead of feeling bad about that I try to encourage him to be appreciative of what he has and also generous to others (in age appropriate ways, again toddler is too young imo).

Consider learning about and practicing self-compassion, it sounds like you're pretty hard on yourself and there is research showing that critical self-talk can impede behavior change efforts. I think being kind to yourself and modeling that is a powerful way to help your child grow up happier. I've found that has paid off, being patient and kind to my kid as best I can has resulted in him being patient and kind with me. If I'm frustrated by something not working with him (like we're trying to set up a new game) I'll sort of talk outloud my problem-solving process, same if I get lost or take a wrong way while I'm driving, I'll say "hmm I'm a little confused but I'm sure I can figure out where we need to be", or "whoops I missed the turn, silly me" versus "damn it why do I always do this". I also don't think there's anything noble about wearing shoes until they're falling apart, be careful who you compare yourself to and consider that taking good care of yourself by meeting your material and other needs is healthy and good modeling for your child.

And fwiw my dad was a lifelong smoker, the only habit he couldn't kick, and none of his kids are smokers (there are 4 of us). In school we received strong messages that smoking was bad and it was just never a temptation despite us watching him smoke like a chimney through our childhoods. I was estranged from my dad for years but when I was young he was great about cultivating my interests and always told me I could do anything I wanted to do (and helped me with projects), I think that sort of thing along with unconditional positive regard goes a long way.
posted by lafemma at 3:53 PM on April 7, 2020 [5 favorites]

Impulse control is less about willpower and more about regulating your emotions. (Caveat: Not entirely so in the case with smoking since there are also physical qualities to addiction that make it tough to quit.)

Why are you buying the new toy? Ask yourself that question. Is there a part of yourself that is buying for you...for the young version of you that wasn't provided those things? Also, ask yourself why you feel guilty? What is the self talk in moments of not having impulse control?

I grew up in a dysfunctional family and we didn't always have the best responses to stressful/frustrating/sad/etc. experiences. As an adult, I'm working hard to have healthier, more constructive reactions to situations that stress me out....even low level stress things. (I turned to food to make myself feel better when I was having a crap time.) There are a lot of lessons I just didn't learn when I was young.

If someone wants something, now, now, now, part of it is a reaction to how they are feeling. And not knowing what to do with those emotions when they have them. I know many children AND adults who behave poorly when they want something and don't get it. I think the important thing to consider is what emotions are driving the behavior and finding constructive ways to deal with whatever you're feeling. It will translate to all other areas of your life.
posted by pdxhiker at 3:59 PM on April 7, 2020 [6 favorites]

I could have written this. Super curious to see more answers.

I appreciated Lexica's comment above about the replication issue and how that begs the question of the role affluence has to play on our lives (vs. merely impulse control).

Like the OP, I also have shite impulse control. I also attribute this to my upbringing, though perhaps incorrectly. On the other hand, it is indeed true to say that I have poor impulse control. I think it's because no one ever modelled this behaviour for me. I literally didn't even know it was an option until very recently!!

So for me, just the fact that I now *can* choose to deploy this tactic if I want is enough to get me started. It works the best for measurable goals--so I think that is why people are always trying to get you to make measurable goals. It's because when you can measure it, you can weigh options pretty easily. "Well, I've got exactly 120 words left to write. I can either suffer through it even though I'm tired as hell and the cheesecake oh cheesecake, knowing I'll have a way better day tomorrow if I'm not playing catchup with this dumb thing all day" OR I can bail now because I'm tired as hell and the cheesecake oh cheesecake, knowing my day will be shit tomorrow." So, maybe in some cases it is better to bail now. But then it's not an impulse. It's a weighed decision.

Try it, it feels soooooooo gooood!!!
In other words, I can testify that I have been able to improve it simply by practising it, but ymmv. I haven't been doing it lately as much (because pandemic) so thanks for the reminder :)
posted by abuckamoon at 4:05 PM on April 7, 2020

My parents were extremely (money) poor when I was your toddler's age, and I have excellent impulse control, at least when it comes to spending money.

I attribute this to that we never lacked for anything, which is probably a lot easier to do if you can restrict your kid's access to media. We were also immigrants, you know, so I never expected to be the same as other kids or have the same things. I was also seldom disappointed or surprised -- dinner was always at 6:30, we always watched the news followed by Jeopardy.

Anyway, even if you don't have a 529 plan set up, know that a cash cushion allows you to bring more predictability to your kid's life, and THAT is what will give him good (spending) impulse control. Stuff happens, but cash on hand helps you course correct.

The downside to this, of course, is that I am terrible at articulating what I want as an adult -- I was always pretty happy with my parents' offerings, whatever they were (book about planets from the library's FREE pile? spirograph from a dumpster? rubber stamp set? game on floppy disk? yeah! sure!), and never had to ask for anything.
posted by batter_my_heart at 4:12 PM on April 7, 2020 [2 favorites]

I'm not going to say that I've learned impulse control, but for purchases I've learned to cushion it by keeping a list of things I want to buy (anything is fair game) and if it's still on the list a week later I go buy it. I tell myself I'm teaching myself delayed gratification, but without the list I just go back to buying stuff out of hand.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 4:28 PM on April 7, 2020 [1 favorite]

Willpower is only a finite resource if you think it is. Willpower is not a finite resource. I can run out of willpower in the same way I can run out of the ability to feel angry or joyful. I can't. It will ebb and flow, but it is never going to be "full" or "empty". It was a very helpful reframing that I linked some research on. The marshmallow test is such stupid bullshit, BTW.

I control my impulses by slowing the time between thought and action. Often, this is literal distance. If I have M&Ms in my house, I will eat them. If I don't, I will not eat them unless I go to a fair amount of effort. Big and little things control this. My phone being in another room is a choice to go get versus picking it up right next to me without a thought.

I try to look back to see how I actually felt right after or long after a decision to inform future ones.

Above all, I fuck up a lot and that's fine. It's fine to fuck up. Thinking it isn't fine to fuck up will lead you to avoiding any of these: trying in the first place, analyzing how it went whether successful or a failure, trying again.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 4:46 PM on April 7, 2020 [4 favorites]

I got a fair amount of toys and indulgences as a child...but as an adult I have a lot of willpower, focus, and am very goal-oriented and motivated. My indulgent parent was / had none of these characteristics. But they always stressed the importance of those qualities and praised them in me as I developed them.

I dont think buying your kid toys occasionally is going to make or break this. Teach them good habits, and patience, even if you cant always meet your own expectations. They'll figure it out :)
posted by ananci at 6:08 PM on April 7, 2020

So, what can I do to get better at impulse control? How can I teach my kid to have good impulse control? It has been a source of frustration for me and I would like to spare my kid some of the hardships I’ve dealt with, if possible.

Setting aside the very real concerns about the long term results marshmallow study itself for a moment, I believe one of the experimental findings was that distraction was a key technique predicting outcomes. You don't 'emotionally regulate' your desire by somehow divorcing yourself from the desire, cuz like that's in a sense self defeating -- if you don't want two marshmallows then you may as well eat the one on front of you. Building some kind of Odysseusian emotional lashing to the mast to restrain you from things things you can't avoid seems quite hard. Maybe best as a tactic for delayed gratification rather than outright denial.

But IMO the best strategy is designing your life to avoid temptation. If you want to avoid strippers, probably don't move next to the club. If you don't want to spend money on clothes / etsy / wish, install adblock on your browsers. Unsubscribe from mailing lists, fast forward through ads with DVR. Politely leave the Messages thread where your coworkers are engaged in a slow photographic tournament of luxury purchases. Put so much money into your 401k you never feel comfortable with whats left in checking, and pay off student loan debt early.
posted by pwnguin at 8:48 PM on April 7, 2020

pinterest wishlists helped because they are several clicks away from the actual store and i could add non-material images to my "i want this i want it" secret lists to remind me. Also decluttering and putting stuff I had away so it was a nice surprise when I pulled the neatly packed box out to go oh yay I have all these books waiting, I have this craft supply stash, I have these clothes I put away - like past me stashing presents I had already bought for me to be opened.

Also I manage books by buying from betterworldbooks. They're a LOT cheaper secondhand, they ship slowly and I just add new books there and wait till I get notified oh a book on your wishlist is available. Then weeks later ta-dah the mail has surprise new-to-me books. You can get browser extensions that turn book links on amazon into one-click local library searches too.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 9:50 PM on April 7, 2020 [2 favorites]

my kids had automated savings and regular pocket money they had to use for any treats. Twice a year they got a clothing budget and that - I did underwear, uniforms and socks - was how they had to decide on their clothes. I helped them the first 2 years of that to compare costs etc, but they are pretty frugal clothes shoppers now. The youngest has an insane amount of cash saved up from relatives' gifts but because I make her wait a week for purchases I disagree on (no you do not need more LOL dolls) she tends to find something new a week later to shop/save for. I buy any book they want, but bedazzled stationary, new phone etc, they have to save up. Out of 5, only one has impulse problems with money so that's a decent rate. He is on a forced savings plan with me as a result, his agreement to manage his spending.

it definitely helps to do out loud comparative shopping with them - should Mama buy this milk on sale or stick to that milk? Which is really cheaper? Do I need new shoes for this party and will I wear them more times so it works out to $10 a use or is it a waste of money? The bills are due so every second week I sit down and check all of them, see, and then I check my bank account etc. etc. At some point you will hear your own financial advice come out of their mouths too.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 9:56 PM on April 7, 2020 [2 favorites]

With a toddler, at this stage there's is so much emotional regulation stuff going on. There is alot of working on building vocabulary for expression of feelings, and identifying feelings. They're alot of work on on concept of time. Kids are very very bad at this. Time is incredibly abstract and things kind of just happen for them. There is a reason Daniel tiger sings about the order of things so much, because kids don't understand time. Older little kids get some time but only linear order. First a, thenb then c and only with tons of repitition. So at this point impulse control is very very much about 1) emotional identification 2) parental support when things cannot go toddlers way, 3) things in very very small timescales(think 30 seconds, a minute, a single current action) 4) consistency of caregivers.

Right now, with my toddler it's more about pushing buttons and testing so we are doing (when mom says no we put our hands to our sides and go do something else) and direct her to a different thing. But as she gets into 'hey I want that thing', we explain to her if she can't have it, give her words, stay consistent with whatever it was we said, and then help her transistion. Toddler still melts down, this is okay and normal!
Emotional regulation is hard work and takes sometimes a lifetime to master.
posted by AlexiaSky at 9:58 PM on April 7, 2020 [1 favorite]

I've been trying to regulate my impulse control from a environmental footprint standpoint, which has helped me a lot because I'm bad at just doing it for myself or my finances, but I do care about over consumption and plastic and climate change.

To help me transition, I was allowed to buy ANYTHING I want from the thrift store, but I have to remove an equivalent number of items from my home to what I bring in. Not realistic for these thrift-store-free times unfortunately, but it did help me a lot to be allowed to shop while I got used to the idea that I was going to stop shopping. You have to really clean stuff from the thrift store usually, so it adds a good barrier of "do I want this enough to do the annoying cleaning step?"

I still do a lot of "put thing in amazon cart and save for later" "make shopping cart of cool clothes on cool site and close the browser"

Sometimes you still get the instant gratification hit from the shopping action - and then another little one from congratulating yourself for not buying it. I like gratification and I don't think I can do without it, so I just have been finding ways to move it around - really congratulating myself for making anything, organizing anything, cleaning anything. sometimes I keep track of how many days I've successfully not bought anything inessential and reveling in my "streak", checking my bank account daily and seeing very few transactions which is cool.

As far as adulting, someone once told me that a good strategy for things is to "be your future friend" and to do things for your future self. I find it weirdly motivating, like if I do the dishes, then future me doesn't need to tomorrow - if I set up coffee on a timer before I go to bed, then future me will wake up to brewed coffee. And then when I appreciate the action, like I don't have to clean up the kitchen before I start cooking dinner, I thank myself profusely for doing it!
posted by euphoria066 at 10:17 AM on April 8, 2020

(Disclaimer: I am not a psychologist or a real expert in this field, just someone who is interested in this subject for their own reasons!)

In addition to "executive function," a good key-word for you to explore may be what's called conscientiousness in personality psychology. In my opinion, it's a somewhat confusing term, since in regular English people often say someone is "conscientious" if they care about their effect on other people and want to do the right thing. That's not what "conscientiousness" actually measures in psychology (there's a different construct called "honesty/humility" that gets closer). Rather, conscientiousness captures traits like being diligent, hard-working, efficient, neat, clean, and planning behavior as opposed to being spontaneous.

There was a recent paper that talked about potential ways to improve conscientiousness that is summarized here. I thought these were a mix of obvious and interesting so I'm adding my own run-down:
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy, and third-wave therapies incorporating mindfulness like ACT
  • Contingency management: basically, concrete rewards for positive behavior
  • Mental contrasting: first imagining a desired goal in detail, then imagining the obstacles that you will need to overcome in order to achieve it
  • Implementation intentions: drawing up "if-then" statements that will help you stick to your goal (e.g., "if I can't get started cleaning, then I'll set a timer and just do ten minutes")
  • Episodic future thinking: taking the time to create a really detailed, vivid mental picture of the most positive yet plausible events that could happen at various times in the future (a day, a week, a month, a year...).
      This one in particular has been shown to improve people's ability to delay gratification and reduce alcohol dependence. I think this is slightly related to the advice to be your "future friend." I can also definitely see how the ability to do this would be undermined by things like poverty, instability, depression, etc.
  • Combination approaches like goal management training
  • Potentially things like cognitive remediation therapy

posted by en forme de poire at 12:34 PM on April 9, 2020

I find that one good way to set myself up for success is to make as many decisions as possible ahead of time.

One way you could do that, and model that for your kid, is to make a list of the kinds of decisions you struggle with, and then - as much as possible - move the decision-making to a time when it's not about impulses.

So, for example, you like to buy toys for the kiddo, but you feel like you're maybe spending too much on them. So pick a dollar amount that feels more comfortable, and pick a day to do that spending (like, maybe the kiddo's birthday day every month? or the last day of the month?), and maybe involve your kid in sticking to the date and choosing the toys: "Okay, the fifth of the month is toy day. We can't get any toys until toy day, but when the fifth rolls around, we've got $20 to spend on whatever you think you want that day. Do you want the $5 and the $15 thing? Or the $20 thing? Or do you want to even wait until next month and get the $40 thing?" The important part is that you no longer decide in the moment: you've made your decision about when toy day is, and how much you get to spend, and that's that.

And for things like zoning out on the couch rather than doing the dishes, again, make the decision ahead of time - and whenever possible, give yourself a reward for doing the thing you want to do. So the decision might be "I always do the dishes as soon as dinner's over", and the reward might be "and then I get to zone out on the couch with zero guilt" or "and then I get to play half an hour of Animal Crossing" or whatever.

For me, at least, making the decision in the moment ("Do I feel like doing the dishes now? ... Nah.") doesn't work so well, but if I make the decisions ahead of time, it gives me a good nudge in the right direction.

Charles Duhigg wrote a book called The Power of Habit. His website has some excerpts from the book, including a flowchart for changing a habit, a section on how habits work (and how to change them), and a guide to changing habits.

Basically, the flowchart says to

(1) identify the cue - what's prompting you to graze, or binge?
(2) identify the reward - what are you getting out of it? and then
(3) substitute a different reward and routine.

Most of all, I would encourage you to be kind to yourself and give yourself lots of praise each time you move toward the habits you want, and give yourself a break when you don't. The whole point of habits is that it makes it easier to mindlessly do the thing we want to do, and the more often you manage to do that, the easier it will get.
posted by kristi at 5:54 PM on April 9, 2020

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