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The Marshmallow Test, “Willpower” and ADHD, Part 1

According to Mischel, what is needed for adequate self-control in any situation is adequate development of the brain’s management system—its executive functions (EF). He writes that children who have well-developed EF during preschool can not only resist the temptation to grab the one marshmallow, but also can inhibit other impulsive responses, keep instructions in mind, and focus their attention to do schoolwork. He notes that “those children whose EF functioning is not developing well in preschool years are at increased risk for ADHD and a variety of other learning and emotional problems throughout their school years" (p.108).

Self-control, executive functions and ADHD

Mischel’s description of children with inadequate development of EF compared to their age peers fits quite well with current descriptions of children with ADHD. On the basis of research over recent years, ADHD, once considered simply a problem in little boys with chronic behavior problems who were unwilling to listen to adults, has been redefined as a developmental impairment of the brain’s self-management system, its executive functions.

ADHD is now recognized by most specialists as a cluster of cognitive difficulties that affects both males and females, often, though not always, persisting into or throughout adulthood. Children and adults with ADHD typically demonstrate chronic problems with being able to focus attention, organize their work, sustain effort, utilize working memory, and inhibit excessively impulsive actions. These difficulties are usually inherited and are associated with differences and delays in brain development and functioning.

When Mischel’s preschoolers underwent brain scans at midlife, those who had shown more difficulty in waiting demonstrated differences in brain functioning similar to those found in children and adults with ADHD. It seems likely that those preschoolers who had much difficulty in waiting for the double marshmallow treat and continued to have relative weaknesses in self-control into adulthood had inherited brain-based difficulties with EF similar to most of those with ADHD. Perhaps the preschoolers who were able to wait longer were more fortunate in their genetic inheritance.

The essential ingredient for resisting temptation: motivation

Yet Mischel is well aware that even those individuals who have extraordinarily strong intellectual and executive functioning skills often demonstrate very poor self-control. He knows that having such skills for one situation does not necessarily mean that those skills will be deployed in different circumstances. In this recent book he explains that “Delay ability can help preschoolers resist one marshmallow now to get two later, but they have to want to do that" (p.189, emphasis added).

This statement that a child’s ability to resist immediate temptation in order to obtain a later reward depends upon the child’s “wanting to do it” may give the impression that the difference between those preschoolers who waited for the double reward and those who didn’t was that they simply wanted that bigger reward more than did the others. But Mischel’s interpretation is more sophisticated. He wants to emphasize that exercise of “willpower” is a skill that depends upon the complexities of motivation.

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Standardized psychological testing could be conducted on everyone at specific time intervals throughout their lives.
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Instead of testing after a mental dysfunction occurs, test beforehand as a preventive measure, rather than a reactive one.

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