Walter Mischel is uses the term "sitzfleisch" when discussing self control and the "Marshmallow Test." Of course, of course, he's a Viennese Jew. He's following up now on the original test-takers ("Learning How to Exert Self-Control" by Pamela Druckerman), to see how those kiddies turned out.
Firstly, he says, "marshmallowing" children doesn't prove anything, since self-control is taught. Secondly, how those kids resisted the temptation is the same method that adults can use: Changing perspective.
The children who succeed turn their backs on the cookie, push it away, pretend it’s something nonedible like a piece of wood, or invent a song. Instead of staring down the cookie, they transform it into something with less of a throbbing pull on them.
Adults can use similar methods of distraction and distancing, he says. Don’t eye the basket of bread; just take it off the table. In moments of emotional distress, imagine that you’re viewing yourself from outside, or consider what someone else would do in your place. When a waiter offers chocolate mousse, imagine that a cockroach has just crawled across it.
“If you change how you think about it, its impact on what you feel and do changes,” Mr. Mischel writes.
"Good and bad"—"tov v'ra"—are subjective. While perspectives differ from person to person, and an individual can choose to see something in a completely different light.
He explains that there are two warring parts of the brain: a hot part demanding immediate gratification (the limbic system), and a cool, goal-oriented part (the prefrontal cortex). The secret of self-control, he says, is to train the prefrontal cortex to kick in first.
To do this, use specific if-then plans, like “If it’s before noon, I won’t check email” or “If I feel angry, I will count backward from 10.” Done repeatedly, this buys a few seconds to at least consider your options. The point isn’t to be robotic and never eat chocolate mousse again. It’s to summon self-control when you want it, and be able to carry out long-term plans.
“We don’t need to be victims of our emotions,” Mr. Mischel says. “We have a prefrontal cortex that allows us to evaluate whether or not we like the emotions that are running us.”
It is not good when emotions are in the driver's seat. They are all about the now, this second, this minute; the brain should not only be the brakes, but the wheel, too. But in order to be a responsible driver, there should be a destination in mind.
Self-control alone doesn’t guarantee success. People also need a “burning goal” that gives them a reason to activate these skills, he says. His students all have the sitzfleisch to get into graduate school, but the best ones also have a burning question they want to answer in their work, sometimes stemming from their own lives.
What do we each want in life? And what do we need to do to achieve it?