Psych Central

Impulse control is fundamental for living effectively in the present moment. Squashing down those primitive emotions that threaten to overwhelm, holding back those body twitches that have me grabbing for food, cigarettes or alcohol, sitting on my trembling hands so I don’t email something inappropriate, do something dangerous, smack someone annoying, buy something I can’t afford or say something I might end up regretting. I can resist anything – except temptation.

In his book, Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman talks about an impulse control experiment where a class of four-year-olds are given a choice by their teacher. One marshmallow now – or two marshmallows later, after he has returned from a fifteen-minute errand. This simple experiment has proved remarkably accurate in predicting impulse control and general emotional intelligence later on in life.

Results show that about one third of the class grabbed the marshmallow as soon as the teacher left the room. I would easily be in that one third; my blood pressure would have risen and I would get red, sweaty and prickly within seconds. My husband, at age four, judging by his adult behaviour now, would wait patiently for the second marshmallow. My oldest son would have grabbed the first marshmallow, eaten it and remained happy. My daughter would have snaffled the first marshmallow, conned some poor sucker into handing over their marshmallow and looked serene and angelic when the teacher returned to the classroom. My youngest son would study the structure and content of the first marshmallow intently under a microscope while waiting for the second, pocket them both, hoard them in his cupboard and promptly forget about them.

Lack of impulse control is related to Attention Deficit Disorder. This comes in handy if you are hunting a woolly mammoth with a spear in your hand and one manages to creep up behind you and lunges with the business end of some very long sharp tusks. In that instance, quick reactions and fast impulses will save your life. The slower, more thinking caveman will end up as breakfast for the beast while the quick reactor will end up able to reproduce for another day.

Marshmallows, unlike escaping from woolly mammoths, are generally not a matter of life or death, but the principle is still the same. I’ve been practicing impulse control all my life and I’m really working at staying in the present moment and not react to my rapidly changing thoughts at a moment’s notice.

I’ve learned that I won’t implode if I resist the impulse to stick my finger up at the motorist who cuts me off on the freeway, that I’ll still be alive in the morning if that piece of chocolate remains in the fridge overnight and that my email will be there when I get home, I do not need to seek out an internet café in the middle of an outing with friends.

And what I enjoy most of all, with the impulse control marshmallow experiment, is rather than eating them raw, is learning to wait long enough to cook them evenly till they are toasty on the outside and liquid on the inside because they taste so much better that way.



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From Psych Central's website:
PsychCentral (June 30, 2009)

    Last reviewed: 29 Jun 2009

APA Reference
Neale, S. (2009). Instant Gratification Takes Too Long. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 17, 2014, from



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