Marshmallows and Impulse Control

Hi!!! And Welcome Back to Motivated Mondays! 

We’re talking about real time resilience. 

A quick recap of last week before we continue.

We have seen how our beliefs impact resilience through our emotional and behavioral consequences. We also know that it can be challenging to regulate emotions during moments of adversity. So, last week, we took a new approach. We targeted the mind-body connection and looked at three techniques to build real time resilience: controlled breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and positive imagery (1). These techniques help intercept unhelpful behaviors in the moment - even when emotions are high and the body is in state of alarm. They can calm emotions and focus the mind in moments of adversity by adjusting our behavior.

Did you take my invitation last week and try one of these techniques to calm yourself during a moment of adversity? I hope you did. Perhaps you even tried all three! 

What did you notice? 

The physiological shift with any of these techniques can be powerful. It can increase oxygen in the bloodstream, slow heart rate, decrease muscle tension, and bring a state of calm. Over time, this can happen quite quickly (1)! But remember, like any of the skills of resilience we have discussed so far, these techniques get easier with practice. So, don’t be discouraged if you didn’t notice these benefits the first time you tried real time resilience. Also, these techniques are not ‘one-size-fits-all’. So be open and experiment with what works for you. Perhaps taking brisk walk, having a cup of tea, dancing in your living room, or simply closing your eyes and counting to ten are better tactics for you. Get creative with how you get calm!

If you wondered why I dove into our thinking for seven weeks before offering these techniques for real time resilience, well, there is a method to my madness. The skills of emotional regulation [ie: monitoring your inner monologue, learning your ABCs, disputing unhelpful beliefs, and the ABCDE method for learned optimism (1,2)] actually boost your impulse control (1)!

Impulse control is yet another skill of resilience (1). As you may have guessed, impulse control is closely related to emotional regulation. Where they differ is that impulse control refers to our external behaviors that arise in moments of challenge while emotional regulation is a internal process (1). Both skills are critical for resilience, and the techniques I introduced last week for real time resilience support impulse control by calming emotions and focusing the mind through a behavioral change. The ability to choose adaptive behaviors in moments of adversity builds resilience. 

Have you heard of the marshmallow test? 

This famous study was designed to examine impulse control in children. A researcher would tell a child that they needed to leave them alone in a room for a few minutes, but before they left, they wanted to offer them a marshmallow. They could eat it now if they wanted. Or, if they waited until the researcher returned in a few minutes, they could have a second one. That’s right. Two marshmallows. Then, the researcher left a marshmallow sitting in front of the child, exited the room, and watched them through one way mirror for a few minutes.

The premise was simple, but the challenge was real! It’s not an easy choice, especially when you are a kid who is face to face with a delicious marshmallow! The kids found all kinds of strategies to help control their impulse to eat the marshmallow and delay gratification until the researcher returned. Some were more successful than others. If you are curious, you can watch this video recreation of the original experiment below.

Researchers followed up with the kids from the study 10 years later to see how they were doing. And guess what! The kids who were capable of waiting and exhibited strong impulse control were doing better both socially and academically. Meanwhile, many of the children who were unsuccessful in this task were struggling (1).

Perhaps you can see why impulse control made children more successful academically. Children with high impulse control can typically focus on their work, tend to act out less in the classroom, and are therefore well liked by their teachers. This creates a positive spiral for academic achievement. 

Why were they doing better socially?

It turns out, impulse control not only impacts our resilience, it effects the quality of our relationships. Those who lack impulse control tend to offend others easily. While they may also be quick to apologize, they tend to be equally quick to re-offend as they have difficultly pausing to consider the circumstances of a situation before acting (1). 

Folks who anger easily also lack strong impulse control (1). Consider this quote by Aristotle (3):  

Flexible, accurate thinking and the ability to positively adapt in moments of adversity? Humm… I could argue that Aristotle was talking about resilience! 

Are you starting to see how resilience impacts those around us?

Emotional regulation - the internal ability to tolerate or the ability to stay calm under pressure - is key to cultivating resilience as it helps folks control emotions, direct attention, and choose behavior. Impulse Control helps us intercept unhelpful behaviors during adversity. Having these skills of resilience work in tandem can keep us from putting the proverbial foot in our mouth due to a knee jerk reactions in a difficult moment. It makes us better partners, better parents, better teachers, better students, and better friends, because those who are unable to regulate their emotions can wear out partners at home or at work (1). 

Please note, successful emotional regulation and impulse control does not mean you should ignore emotional cues or minimize negative emotions. Effective communication of all of our emotions is key to successful relationships. Negative emotions are often strong guideposts for our actions, and emotional expression is part of being resilient (1). It simply means we don’t want to let our emotional selves run amuck as a lack of awareness can be counter productive, drain personal resilience, and negatively impact our relationships.

It also means having an awareness of your impact on others can strengthen relationships. Have you ever had a friend that complains about everything? It can feel draining, but more than that research supports that our emotions – whatever they may be- are contagious (1).

There’s a reason we’re told to put on our own oxygen mask before assisting those around us on a plane. If you can’t breathe, you can’t help someone else. Similarly, the ways we respond to adversity impact not only ourselves, but those around us (1). 

Resilient behavior improves our relationships with others!

This week, I invite you to continue exploring what works for you as you build real time resilience. What can you do in a moment of adversity to calm and focus yourself? What helps you control unhelpful impulses? Then, take a moment to step outside of yourself and notice how these choices impact those around you. 

I look forward to seeing you again next week as we continue our journey to resilience by looking at another new skill. Until then, I hope you enjoy your week!

Gratitude for the expertise of the following resources.


1. Reivich, K, Shatté, A. The resilience factor: 7 keys to finding your inner strength and overcoming life's hurdles. Random House Digital, Inc; 2003.

2. Seligman, M. Learned optimism. New York: Knopf; 1991.

3. Crisp, R. (Ed.) Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics. Cambridge University Press; 2014.