On Will Power and the Power of the Will

I have just listened to another great podcast by Gil Fronsdal at ZenCast, courtesy of Audio Dharma, on Will Power and self discipline. Very timely for me, as I am studying two related books – Love and Will, by Rollo May, and The Act of the Will, by Roberto Assagioli – and hoping to develop skilful will.

In Psychosynthesis, my present foundation, we learn that the will has basically a regulating function and willing is an important and valuable psychological function based on our higher self rather on guilt or determination as in the Victorian concept of the will and will power, which are rather out of fashion nowadays. The will is presented as our centre of consciousness, and one of the many basic human subjects, together with love, joy, inspiration, and intuition.

According to Roberto Assagioli, we need will to will:

Will to will!
The will must be:
developed, grounded,
re-oriented and used!

The ability to say no to ourselves

Fronsdal reminded me of the “Stanford Marshmallow Experiment“, a a study on deferred gratification conducted by Walter Mischel of Stanford University in the 70’s, considered “one of the most successful behavioural experiments” and I was then prompted went to investigate it further.

A marshmallow was offered to four-year olds – if a child could resist the temptation of eating the marshmallow before a certain period of time, around 15-20 minutes, they were promised two instead of one. The scientists analysed how long each child resisted the temptation of eating the marshmallow, and whether or not doing so was correlated with future success. There are lovely YouTube imitations inspired on the study – worth watching!


A series of follow-up studies followed the nearly 600 subjects who participated in the marshmallow task, with a new piece conducted every 10 years or so. The idea for the second experiment came by chance: Mischel’s daughters grew up with many of the original test subjects, through casual conversations about her colleagues, he discovered there existed an unexpected correlation between the results of the marshmallow test, and the success of the children many years later: the children having a hard time in school usually had not been able to wait and eaten the marshmallow before the 15 minutes time.

The first follow-up study, in 1988, showed that “preschool children who delayed gratification longer in the self-imposed delay paradigm, were described more than 10 years later by their parents as adolescents who were significantly more competent”. A second follow-up study, in 1990, showed that the ability to delay gratification also correlated with higher SAT scores.

The studies found clear correlations: those who ate the marshmallow within a minute were much more likely to have behavioral problems, struggled in stressful situations, often had trouble concentrating and had temper problems. In addition, the high-delayer who waited for the second marshmallow out-performed students who ate the marshmallow immediately by more than 200 points in their SAT scores.

Forty years on, in 2011, a study of 59 adults who participated as young children (no longer with marshmallows though!) indicated that the aptitude for delayed gratification was consistent from childhood into adulthood, that is, the skill remains with the person for life. Additionally, brain imaging showed key differences between the two groups in two areas: the prefrontal cortex (more active in high delayers) and the ventral striatum (an area linked to addictions).

Instant vs delayed gratification

The marshmallow experiment suggests that the ability to delay gratification is the most important quality for determining success – it is not intelligence or talent or even better opportunities. People who are able to put up with temporary discomfort in exchange for a future reward are more successful in almost every measurable way. They have cultivated the quality of patience.

It doesn’t mean, however, that people with poor self control will be forever doomed to failure. Self control and the ability to delay gratification are not determined by the person’s ‘brain’, these are skills that can be developed with practice. In our culture where we are used to have everything instant, right now, cultivating patience and will can make you go a long way.

In this regard, Roberto Assagioli’s article on the training of the Will is not only inspiring but very useful too – check it out to see methods, meditations and exercises to develop skilful will in daily life.

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