Anyone with young children will know the sound of our ‘Amy brain’ in full cry. “I want it now!” the toddler screams, pausing between wails only for the briefest, panicked gasp of air. Snot and tears running in rivers. Cheeks red with rage and creased in anguish.
And if you’ve not had the pleasure of your own offspring’s tantrum, the scene is played everyday at your nearest supermarket checkout.
We’ve all seen the poor parent, desperately trying to work out if they can finish the self-scanning before they crack. Thank God for contactless payment.
But add a couple of years and the uncontrollable child becomes a paragon of virtue. Poised with self-awareness and restraint. It was a transformation that fascinated the psychologist Walter Mischel.
"I began with a truly burning question," he says. "I wanted to know how my three young daughters developed, in a remarkably short period of time, from being howling, screaming, often impossible kids to people who were actually able to sit and do something that required them to concentrate.”
His findings of how children came to learn to control themselves came to be known after the key tool in his experiments; a marshmallow. And they have laid the foundations of what we know about our own will-power.
In his book, The Marshmallow Test, Mischel goes on to describe how self-control is the engine of success in life. It’s a big claim, and for someone who’s never prided themselves on having much, it’s quite a daunting prediction.
But if my dog can master it, then so can I. There are learnings we can borrow from his tests with six year olds that will help us adults in the fight to lose weight.
The way the test worked was to sit a child at a table in front of a marshmallow and a small bell. An assistant would tell the child, (let’s make this one a girl) that they would be leaving the room for a little while and that if at any time she wanted to eat the sweet she just had to ring the bell and the assistant would return and the girl could eat the marshmallow. If however, the girl would rather have two marshmallows, then she could wait for the assistant to return and at that point (if she’d waited without ringing the bell) she would be given a second marshmallow too.
The children were observed while waiting by Mischel and his colleagues who made notes while hidden behind a two-way mirror. He describes the experiments as delightful to watch. The children went to all sorts of lengths to help themselves resist that marshmallow.
The hid it under the plate. They gazed around the room. Some would sing songs to themselves, others made up stories to tell themselves. Some sat on their hands, others pushed the marshmallow out of reach. Some took to giving themselves verbal instructions… Out loud, they addressed themselves by name and ordered themselves not to ring the bell or touch the sweet.
Many employed a range of tactics.
But it was the ones who employed the tactics who were always the more successful. The kids who just sat there were the most like likely to give in. And, Mischel reports, they often gave in without seeming to even think about it. On a whim they would ring the bell and eat the sweet. Mischel reports that most of the time they would then look surprised that they had even done it. Often they hadn’t meant to.
It wasn’t their rational, in-control brain that had reached for the bell. It was their Amy brain. Mischel calls it hot thinking, but it’s the instinctive, evolutionary part of brain that we have to control if we are ever going to lose weight. It’s controlled by the amygdala – hence Amy brain, for short. And given the degree of temptation we face in the today’s world (even in our own kitchens) we cannot let Amy brain give in to every impulse she has or we’d simply not stop putting on weight.
So look at what the children did. They distracted themselves. They went and did something else. They put physical and mental barriers in place. They even helped give voice to their thoughtful brains, and shut up the voice of their Amy brains.
And these are just the things that will also help us to get one over on our Amy brains. Given the temptation of Traybake Britain we need all the help we can get to deal with it.
You can read more about how your Amy brain works here.
There are six big ways you can help win the battle and lose weight. They are here.
And there are a ton of other ways to win here.
Whatever food diet you want to follow, just make sure you get all the help you can to make it stick. Find the Diet Grove that works for you.
And if you’re good there’s a marshmallow in it. Or, better still, some chocolate.