Willpower and Learning

Marshaling the cognitive resources and committing the amount of time required to earn good grades and high test scores takes effort. The rewards from these achievements are often delayed, while the rewards from having fun with your friends, playing video games, interacting on social media, watching tv, etc. are more immediate. What strategies can you use to help overcome this mismatch?

In the framework explored in this paper, the authors propose that the decision to delay gratification is mediated by two systems: a "cool" cognitive system, and a "hot" emotional system. The more the hot system dominates, the more likely you are to succumb to temptation.

Thankfully, as we get older, the cool system matures and thus makes it easier for many of us to delay gratification. We are most vulnerable to the hot system when we are young. You’ve probably seen the marshmallow experiment in which young children are placed in front of a table with a marshmallow on it, left in a room by themselves, and told that if they wait for the experimenter to return, they can have two marshmallows. (If you haven’t seen or heard about this experiment, you can watch a replication here.) What is fascinating about this study is its predictive power: mere seconds of delay time in preschool significantly predict SAT scores more than a decade later, and correlate significantly with parental ratings of competencies, including the ability to use and respond to reason, plan, handle stress, delay gratification, exert self-control in frustrating situations, and concentrate without becoming distracted.
Does this mean that some of us are simply born with willpower while others are not? No. In fact, there are a few important strategies to keep in mind when trying to resist temptation and delay gratification. First, if the temptation is something that is right in front of you (e.g. your smartphone), try to cover it up or place it somewhere out of sight. Even preschool children significantly increased their delay time simply by covering the marshmallow, so they were not forced to look at it while they waited. This strategy works with video games, tv, smartphones, and so on, too. It’s much easier to focus on the task at hand if your attention is not constantly tempted by the behavior you want to avoid. Second, if you cannot obscure or ignore the tempting stimulus, distract yourself. In particular, try to think about “hot” aspects of another situation (e.g. reaching your goal, the feeling of acing your upcoming test, impressing your teacher in class, the confidence you will have from feeling prepared, etc.). Children were significantly more likely to wait when they thought about having fun doing something else. Finally, if the tempting stimulus continues to come to mind, rather than focus on hot aspects of the stimulus (e.g. how much fun you’ll have going out, playing video games, seeing how many new likes you have, watching that new episode, etc.), reframe your focus within the cool, non-emotional system (e.g. the fact that your friends will go out many more times, that video games aren’t going anywhere, etc). In the marshmallow experiments, simply having the children look at pictures of marshmallows rather than actual marshmallows significantly increased their delay time. Removing the hot aspects of the situation - the actual marshmallows - allowed the children to reason about the situation in a more logical way. The same is true for real-life temptations.

Within the hot/cool framework, it is also worth noting that stress preferentially activates the hot system and inhibits the cool system. This is corroborated by the fact that hot system dominance in early life is consistent with evidence that the amygdala, which is central to the hot system, is functioning at birth, while the hippocampus and frontal lobe structures (i.e. the “cool” system) mature much later. Chronic stress is associated with smaller hippocampal volume, and thus may predispose individuals to hot system dominance. Furthermore, even acute stress limited to a particular situation appears to inhibit the cool system. Children who were instructed to think negative thoughts (e.g. “falling down and getting a bloody nose which hurts a lot” or “crying with no one to help”) waited less than half the amount of time as children who were told to think of something fun. So in addition to the strategies mentioned above, keep in mind that your cool system is likely to function better when your stress levels are low or moderate. (As mentioned in my article on Sleep & Emotion, one of the easiest ways to reduce stress is to make sure you’re getting enough sleep.)

The hot/cool system explains much of the data related to the delay of gratification and, perhaps of even greater note, offers specific strategies you can use to enhance your willpower in your daily life. Given the many distractions we are faced with on a daily basis these are important findings; and since experience helps to shape both systems, the sooner you start practicing these strategies, the easier it will be to exert willpower in tempting situations!


Peter A.

Harvard PhD Student | Expert SAT, ACT, & GRE Tutor

900+ hours
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