ICEBERG EXPLORATION: Something you don’t know about self-control Start with the marshmallow experiment

Have you ever heard of the marshmallow experiment with children?3-Minute Video Marshmallow Experiment

In this experiment: participating children were asked to sit in a room and the experimenter placed a marshmallow in front of them. They had to sit there for 15 minutes without eating the marshmallow, and the experimenter told them: ‘If you don’t eat the marshmallow before I come back, you will get a second one.’ The longer the children were able to resist eating the marshmallow, the greater self-control they were said to possess (Mischel, Ebbesen, & Raskoff Zeiss, 1972). For example, children between the ages of 4 to 5 who were found to have greater self-control in that experiment were, in later years, less likely to misuse substances or be obese, and more likely to respond better to stress.

You might be thinking: “Surely my ability to maintain self-control is genetically determined, and therefore I won’t be able to change anything about it”. Luckily, this is only partially true.

Luckily, this is only partially true.

One of our bloggers reported on the concept of ‘laziness’ and that you can adopt certain strategies to overcome it. In psychological science, the strategies he mentioned are indeed used to temporarily increase self-control and motivation.

Even more interesting might be the assumption that there are two tricks for improving your self-control skills in the long term.

According to Muraven and Baumeister (2000), self-control draws itself from a limited source. That means that if you exert too much self-control, such as controlling certain emotions, restricting your eating habits, smoking less than usual, or making responsible decisions, then the source diminishes and ‘ego-depletion’ occurs.  As a consequence, it is more difficult to perform acts of self-control after previously inhibiting urges. What might be surprising is that even completely different kinds of self-control seem to have an impact on each other..

Trick 1: positive emotions, rest, and recovery

To preserve the self-control source, positive emotions, rest, and recovery should be applied. For example, if you want to lose weight, then you should try to do it 1) when you are not stressed. Give yourself 2) rest days where you can give in to your urges, and 3) sleep enough to recover your self-control source. Try to start with 4) only changing one behavior, such as physical activity. And try to 5) have fun.

Trick 2: Keep training 

Like a muscle, the source can even be trained to get stronger and to discharge less quickly. In one experiment, adult participants had to use self-control on themselves for two weeks by reducing the amount of sweets they ate or by squeezing a handgrip, whereas others did not perform acts of self-control. The performance on an inhibition task called the ‘stop signal paradigm’, which is used to test self-control skills, improved significantly among adults that had practiced the self-control skills. The results could neither be explained by people’s expectancies about future outcomes nor by increased beliefs in their own skills or awareness of self-control.


This post is the personal story / opinion of Nathalie Berninger, not VitaBit Software, for more information please visit the VitaBit software disclaimer. Nathalie is a mid-twenties health psychologist, who is specialized in the promotion of appropriate health and social behaviors.


Mischel, W., Ebbesen, E. B., & Raskoff Zeiss, A. (1972). Cognitive and attentional mechanisms in delay of gratification. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 21(2), 204-218.

Mischel, W., Shoda, Y., & Peake, P. K. (1988). The nature of adolescent competencies predicted by preschool delay of gratification. Journal of personality and social psychology, 54(4), 687.

Mischel, W., Shoda, Y., & Rodriguez, M. I. (1989). Delay of gratification in children. Science, 244(4907), 933-938.

Muraven, M. (2010). Building Self-Control Strength: Practicing Self-Control Leads to Improved Self-Control Performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46(2), 465–468.

Muraven, M., & Baumeister, R. F. (2000). Self-regulation and depletion of limited resources: Does self-control resemble a muscle? Psychological Bulletin, 126(2), 247-259.