A Stanford academic called Walter Mischel devised the ground-breaking Marshmallow Test. It was very simple: they put a young child alone in a room with a marshmallow. The child was given a choice: they could eat the marshmallow straight away, or wait 15 minutes and be given a second marshmallow as a reward for waiting.
In the decades that followed, researchers kept tabs on the kids. In 2013, Dr Mischel was interviewed by Charlie Rose about his findings, notably that the kids who resisted eating the marshmallow got better marks in school, were less likely to take drugs and were less likely to be obese.
Now that we are entering Lent, many of us are a little bit like the kids in the experiment, willing ourselves to “give up” something sweet and pleasurable for a set time.
If we’re giving up chocolate, paying for our groceries in shops that place keyboard-sized bars of the stuff around the tills without giving into temptation will require self-discipline. Those of us who give up gin and tonics may have to go to functions and parties where the smell of juniper is heavy in the air, but doing our Lenten penance will mean saying no to the offer of a drink.
We won’t be videotaped and a team of psychologists will not be poring over our responses. And we’re not doing Lenten penances as some academic experiment to measure our self-mastery. Rather, the Christian is doing Lenten penances with the view to earning grace and growing in holiness.
An interesting essay uses the marshmallow studies on willpower to argue that our ability to resist temptation is directly related to how much trust we place in God. It argues:
There is a crucial link between trust and temptation. To the degree that we allow our natural insecurity to lead us to mistrust God, we are open to the appeal of the proposition that it is all up to us, that God is not able to provide and so we’d better take matters into our own hands. We listen to the serpent, we reach for the apple – or marshmallow – and eat.
At the same time that we are trying to grow in holiness, there could also be added psychological benefits to Lenten penance. Another Stanford psychology academic, Kelly McGonigal, has compared willpower to a muscle: it gets stronger the more you use it (in this video from 7:00).
By giving up sugary snacks, beer and wine, we could very well improve our strength of will – and feel better about ourselves – for having stayed the course.