How former president Clinton, who couldn’t resist donuts (or other temptations), now can

Editor’s Note: In parts one and two of Paul Solman’s conversation with Columbia psychologist Walter Mischel, father of the marshmallow test, they explore what the test doesn’t mean: that your willpower is sealed by your ability to refuse the marshmallow or not. Actually, Mischel explains in part one, you can learn self-control.

The Marshmallow Test

But let’s say your child did fail the test. What should you do to help him or her develop stronger willpower? As Mischel explains in part two, willpower isn’t one monolithic trait. Each of us has a network of highly localized “hotspots”: things that set us off emotionally. Controlling those hotspots requires “cooling.”

For Mischel, smoking was one of his hotspots. For Harvard economist David Laibson, it’s his inability to get himself to go to the gym. For Bill Clinton, Walter guesses, it was junk food and certain kinds of women. Mischel demonstrates how he cooled the instant gratification of smoking, for example, by making the long-term consequences more emotionally salient, or “hot” in his brain.

In his visit to Stanford’s virtual reality lab, Paul Solman saw how virtual reality avatars allow younger people to visualize themselves as older people (and therefore inspire saving for retirement) in much the same way Mischel used a visual of a lung cancer patient to get himself to quit smoking.

— Simone Pathe, Making Sen$e Editor

PS: So what should the woman from The Atlantic who interviewed you be doing, what should Tiger Woods be doing, what should Bill Clinton be doing, and what should I be doing to lose weight?

WM: Each one of these is a quite different situation. I think what Bill Clinton should be doing is exactly what he’s doing now. In fact, Bill Clinton’s an excellent example of what he should be doing when he realizes that he’s not invulnerable. He realized two things: his invulnerability was contextualized in two things: junk food, and he had a problem with certain kinds of women. He didn’t have a self-control problem when it came to getting a Rhodes scholarship, or when it came to getting a Yale Law degree or when it came to becoming president. His self-control problems were highly localized.

Now, I haven’t interviewed Bill Clinton and don’t know him, but my strong impression was that junk food and certain kinds of women were, indeed, very hot temptations for him so that his limbic system was very much geared to them, so that a guy with huge self-control was competencies was highly tempted in those areas. And that on top of that, his prefrontal cortex was telling him, “Don’t worry about the consequences. You’ve always gotten away with it and you will again.”

What changed is that it didn’t quite play out that way, including have multiple heart attacks and so on, from the stress and the junk food. So he slimmed down, and as far as public awareness at least, his hotspots are controlled. So it’s clear he has the cognitive skills, but he may have actually had a heart attack because he was heavily drawn to his two types of temptations, and he probably also had zero motivation. The willpower construct or the willpower trait disconnects into, on the one hand, a set of cognitive skills, which are the skills that the kids in those marshmallow studies need in order to delay, and on the other hand, having a goal, a motivation. In constructing a life, it helps to have burning goals or a succession of burning goals.

PS: Burning goals?

WM: Yeah, burning goals is what I call them. Something that really drives you, like what is driving you currently to be doing what you’re doing. And that’s a burning goal.

PS: Just to talk about this at a micro-level, this is something that I do. I had knee surgery back in 1980, so I need to do knee bends to keep the other structures in the leg strong to compensate. I also feel the need to brush my teeth – a lot. I also think it’s a good idea that I do some form of yoga or balancing, and it’s a good idea to use my left hand as opposed to my right hand because obviously the left hand gets underutilized. So I do knee bends while brushing my teeth with my left hand. I’m trying to aggregate the rewards to certain behaviors that I wouldn’t otherwise be inclined to do. Does that connect to what you are advising?

WM: It connects very strongly to it. It’s completely consistent with it. I start one chapter of the book talking about David Laibson’s discounting function when it comes to going to the gym and his own efforts to get himself to go, which don’t work because the discounting function in that case is quite unfavorable. Even if he tries to spend a few thousand bucks ahead of time by joining the Harvard gym, he winds up losing a great deal of money because he doesn’t go. So you need the motivation. He’s got the skills. The guy works around the clock, so it’s not a self-control problem. It’s not a problem of having inadequate cognitive skills to have executive function, it’s just that he’s not going to put executive function into areas in which the motivation isn’t high.

To answer The Atlantic lady’s question about her son, if this kid really had a serious problem, and it isn’t, then there are huge if/then plans that she can use with her child to help him.

PS: What would you do if the kid were having a problem?

WM: I’d first of all want to identify where the hotspots are. That’s absolutely the first thing. Otherwise you’re talking about some generalized thing which I don’t think captures what human nature is when we look at it close.

PS: So there’s this multiplicity of hotspots; we’re all products of how our environment interacted with our genotype. But so what do you do once you’ve identified the hotspot?

WM: Let me try to address that. I think the general rule, in order to understand the mechanisms, is to make the delayed consequences hot and vivid. The immediate stuff is very hot and vivid. What we have to do is cool the immediate stuff, which means we have to have ways, like the if/then plans, of slowing the response and having automatically a habit – like the way you brush your teeth: If I brush my teeth, then I go through these other rituals. When you were giving your example, I was thinking of my thing. I have an easy tendency to stumble and fall, which is not a good thing in an 84-year-old guy, so when I brush my teeth, then I do balancing exercises.

How to Quit Smoking

PS: But the if/then – what’s the reward of the “then”?

WM: What’s the reward of the “then” when we quit smoking? The “then” of that is making the delayed consequences hot and cooling the immediate.

So what did I do when I quit smoking? I was hooked on three packs of cigarettes a day (this was 50 years ago, and I haven’t smoked a cigarette since), and that was supplemented by a pipe. I had read the surgeon general’s report in 1962 or something, and of course, my cool system had endless ways of helping my hot system to completely ignore it. My cool system was saying smoking’s very professorial, it helps me give better lectures, puffing on cigarettes or a pipe as I walk up and down on the podium, and besides, everybody else was doing it then – until I had an experience.

My epiphany moment came when I was walking in the halls of the Stanford Medical School, and I saw a guy on a gurney. His chest was bare, and his head was shaved completely. And there were little green x’s all over his head and all over his chest, and I asked the nurse, “What’s this?” And she said, “This is a man who has metastasized lung cancer and it’s spread all over and the x’s are where the radiation goes.” That was a very, very vivid image that I decided really violated my conception of myself of being a professor who smokes a lot. I kept reminding myself of that image at the same time that I stuck my head into a large can that I had prepared, which had tobacco remnants and pipe debris, and so on, so it really had a huge nicotine odor, and stuck my nose into that every time I was tempted to smoke and I reminded myself what that guy looked like and what my chest would look like down the road.

So what does it mean? I made the delayed consequences very hot and did everything I could to turn a delicious thing into an aversive thing.

PS: That’s really interesting. And so a version of that…

WM: Yeah, some version of that, which has an additional component that I think is very important. I made a pact with my three-year-old thumb-sucking daughter that if she stopped sucking her thumb, I would stop sucking my pipe.

PS: And she agreed to that?

WM: Completely. She stopped sucking her thumb, and I stopped sucking my pipe. I did another thing, which was to involve my colleagues in the department in not allowing me to mooch cigarettes from them.

I say this because there’s so much talk about pre-commitment plans, and they can be terrific if they’re serious, but I have a colleague at Columbia, now deceased — a very eminent researcher on smoking — who was smoking himself to death. He realized he had to give it up because he was getting sicker and sicker and sicker. So what he decided to do was stop buying cigarettes. But he wound up mooching them from everybody else, and everybody else was giving them to him. This was an example of pre-commitment plans sure to fail. And his moment of shame came at the corner of Broadway and 116th Street. It was Christmastime and the Columbia offices were closed, and there were no people to mooch from, and he finally saw a cigarette butt that looked tempting. (His criteria for tempting was anything that didn’t look like it had blood on it.) So he stooped down to get the cigarette, and then as he came up, he realized that the street person who always stood on that corner was looking at him in amazement and said to him, “I don’t fucking believe it.” I believe this was a great moment of shame. Unfortunately it was too late; he was dead a year later.

So we need vivid experiences; we’ve got to find a way to make the delayed hot and cool the immediate. Now if I were advising this colleague of mine on what plan he should have used, he had endless causes that he hated. So all he would have had to do was make checks out to the causes that he hated, and then I would be the one who would mail them for him every time he smoked a cigarette.

PS: And people are using that technique!

WM: Exactly. There’s all this stuff that the economists talk about on nudging. In economics, like David Laibson does, it’s brilliant because if you’re a large company that cares about its employees and you make the default option being in the retirement plan rather than having it be something that you have to actively do, of course you change it from 40 percent to 90 percent who are covered. But I think the whole point about self-control, the whole point about willpower, is to help people understand that there are endless self-nudge techniques that can be enormously helpful and are very simple. The if/then thing is just one illustration.

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