In a experiment conducted in the 1970s by a Stanford professor Walter Mischel, children were tested for their ability to resist the temptation to eat a marshmallow (“deferred gratification” as the pros call it). As the children grew up into adults, Mischel discovered that the children who had successfully resisted the temptation were also the ones who went on to achieve academic and professional success. Although the study is never cited to be so, it is actually proof of the validity of Titiksha(forbearance), which is a foundational practice in the path of Yoga.
…For there was never yet philosopher that could endure the toothache patiently…
(Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing)
In the marshmallow experiment conducted with about 600 children (see the video below), Mischel asked each child to sit alone in a room with a dish containing a marshmallow or some other treat. The children were told that they were free to eat the marshmallow, but if they waited for fifteen minutes until the instructor returned, they would get another marshmallow. About a third of the children waited for the full fifteen minutes, while the rest ate the treat before the instructor returned.
In the subsequent years, Mischel noticed that the children who were failing in school were the same ones who had quickly consumed the marshmallow. After about a decade, he discovered that the children who had waited for the second marshmallow had out-performed by more than 200 points on the SAT test (a standardized test administered for college admissions in the USA). In subsequent follow-up studies, it was found that the kids who had waited had become competent professionals with a higher annual income.
Carolyn Weisz and her brother were two of the children who had participated in that experiment. Carolyn, who had resisted the temptation to eat for the fifteen minutes, is today a Professor of Psychology at University of Puget Sound while her brother Craig, who swallowed the marshmallow immediately, now works in the entertainment industry in Los Angeles. The New Yorker article “Don’t! The secret of self-control” linked below contains the full story (see ).
In a recent article in the Scientific American “How Self-Control Works“, Dan Ariely mentions another study which reached a similar conclusion:
A recent study (see ) by colleagues of mine at Duke demonstrates very convincingly the role that self control plays not only in better cognitive and social outcomes in adolescence, but also in many other factors and into adulthood. In this study, the researchers followed 1,000 children for 30 years, examining the effect of early self-control on health, wealth and public safety. Controlling for socioeconomic status and IQ, they show that individuals with lower self-control experienced negative outcomes in all three areas, with greater rates of health issues like sexually transmitted infections, substance dependence, financial problems including poor credit and lack of savings, single-parent child-rearing, and even crime. These results show that self-control can have a deep influence on a wide range of activities. And there is some good news: if we can find a way to improve self-control, maybe we could do better. 
Pop psychology, especially in Western culture, believes that repressed emotions can lead to psychological disorders and consequently, free expression and fulfillment of pleasures is encouraged. These studies suggests otherwise; they advance the notion that children who are able to withstand temptation could evolve into more mature human beings. The secret ingredient in the development of wisdom seems to be neither forced repression nor licentious expression but a carefully nurtured self-awareness.
Mainstream scientists are currently speculating on the origin of the self-control capability – “where does it come from” they ask ? Neuroscientists ascribe it to the brain’s frontal cortex, geneticists attribute it to genetic and environmental influences, while evolutionary psychologists might in all probability trace it to some mysterious tribal ritual which was practiced thousands of years ago on the African continent. The venerable Indian yogis averred that self-control derives from the Purusha. There are two sides to human consciousness – Purusha (immobile spirit) and Prakriti (consciousness in action) and the initial goal of Yoga is to separate these two through various practices.
The kids who participated in the marshmallow experiment were engaged in an elementary form of what is well-known in Yoga as Titiksha(forbearance). Sri Aurobindo listed Titiksha as the first step in the cultivation of passive equaniminity as part of his spiritual program “Sapta Chatusthaya“. The following passage from Sri Aurobindo’s Record of Yoga outlines the concept:
Titiksha: The power to bear steadily & calmly all sparshas(contact) without any reaction in the centre of the being, whether they are pleasant or painful. The mind or body may desire or suffer, but the observing Purusha(soul) remains unattracted and unshaken, observing only as Sakshi(witness) and as Ishwara(Divine) holding the system firmly together & calmly willing the passing of the dwandwas(dualities). It does not crave for or demand the pleasure. It does not reject the pain. Even when pleasure or pain are excessive, it wills that the mind and body should not shrink from or repel them, but bear firmly. It deals in the same way with all dwandwas(dualities), hunger & thirst, heat & cold, health & disease, failure & success, honour and obloquy etc. It neither welcomes & rejoices, nor grieves & avoids. It gets rid of all jugupsa(disgust), fear, shrinking, recoil, sorrow, depression etc, i.e. all the means by which Nature (bhutaprakriti) warns us against & tries to protect from all that is hostile. It does not encourage them, nor does it necessarily interfere with such means as may be necessary to get rid of the adverse touches; nor does it reject physically, except as a temporary discipline, the pleasant touches; but inwardly it presents an equal front of endurance to all. The result is udasinata or indifference. 
We end with a couple of delightful videos…
A recent video re-enacting the marshmallow experiment
An unrelated but adorable viral video demonstrating endurance
- Lehrer, Jonah (May 18, 2009). “Don’t! The secret of self-control.”. The New Yorker. http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/05/18/090518fa_fact_lehrer. Retrieved April 23 2011.
- Moffitt TE, et al. (2011) A gradient of childhood selfcontrol predicts health, wealth, and public safety. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 108:2693–2698 http://www.pnas.org/content/108/7/2693
- Ariely, Dan. (April, 2011) “How Self-Control Works” Scientific American. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=how-self-control-works
- Sri Aurobindo. CWSA vol 10-11, Record of Yoga, p 25.
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