Faith, Addiction, and the Marshmallow Test Revisited

Adapted from 4 Tools of Emotional Healing.

How can faith help you control your impulses, delay gratification and make healthier decisions?  Let me describe some recent research that sheds some interesting light on the connection.

Researchers have known for decades that people who have trouble with controlling their impulses, or delaying gratification have a much harder time succeeding in life. They are more likely to do drugs, drop out of school, experience an unintended pregnancy, etc. Researchers know this because of a long-term follow-up study of children who participated in what is known as “The Marshmallow Test” at Stanford University in the 1960’s. In it, researchers leave a 4-year-old alone in a room with a single marshmallow or other treat and tell them that if they can wait until the researcher comes back in ten minutes to eat it, they can have TWO treats instead of one. Children who were good at this—who waited the longest without eating the treat—were found to be more successful in many areas of their life as they grew into adulthood.

The fact that this one test correlated with a long-term pattern of behavior seemed to indicate that it was exposing an innate character quality in these children. A child was either good at delaying gratification or he wasn’t, and if he wasn’t when the test was given, he probably wouldn’t ever be. This consistency suggested that an ability to wait for a greater good was somehow written into a child’s DNA.

The fact that poor kids tended to do less well on this test was explained, not by their poverty, but by an inherited predisposition for irresponsible behavior and short-term thinking.

So where does faith come in? Well, about 50 years later, as it turns out.

In a 2012 study of 56 three-to-five-year-olds, researchers at University of Rochester found that children who experienced reliable interactions with a researcher immediately before the marshmallow experiment waited on average four times longer to eat the marshmallow than children who had an unreliable interaction.

For this new version of the study, children were given two activities. In the first activity, they were promised a reward if they did an art project as requested. After doing the project, half of the children were given the promised reward, and half were not. Later, this same researcher told them that if they waited to eat their marshmallow, they would get a second one.

The children who had faith that the researcher would do as he promised waited a mean time of twelve minutes, while those who expected the researcher to let them down waited a mean time of three minutes—only one quarter as long.

The ones waiting three minutes were not poorer, less bright, or less able to control their impulses. They had less faith that waiting would gain them any advantage.

They had learned from experience that promises are broken, people are unreliable, and pleasure should be grabbed while it is sitting in front of you. As one of the researchers said, “If you are used to getting things taken away from you, not waiting is the rational choice.”

This new study provides strong evidence that the kids who lacked self-control in the ‘60s were probably living in unstable households before they even walked through the door to take the test. Is it any wonder, then, that the follow-up studies found them to be less successful?

Many of us also grew up in unstable homes. Even if we had religious faith, we did not necessarily have faith that God and the universe were looking out for our best interests. The idea that there was plenty to go around never occurred to us. We expected to run out; we expected to be disappointed; we expected to be lied to; we sometimes even expected to be hurt and abused. These expectations were developed as a result of our interaction with those whom we should have been able to trust. As a corollary to these expectations, we also expected to fail, to have the rug pulled out from under us, and to be caught in an endless Catch 22 of bureaucratic gotcha’s.

The expectation that life will kick you when you are down creates a self-sabotaging attitude. Why study if you will never graduate? Why wait to have sex if you will never have a career? Why not take drugs, if they make you feel good now?

When we combine this expectation of failure with feelings of guilt and shame, it is not surprising that many of us go through our days subconsciously looking for proof that the world is out to get us. When that is what we expect to see, that is exactly what we find.

New Book, New Editions and a Thank You!

In case you haven’t heard, the second book in my Love, Lust and the Longing for God series is now available.  4 Tools of Emotional Healing and The Secret of Emotions are both now available in paperback and as KINDLE editions at Amazon, at InterfaithResources and at BahaiResources for instant download.

Thank you, also to the 600+ people who entered to win a free copy of The Secret of Emotions.  The 200 winners should receive their copy in the next week or so, as they were mailed today.