I ate the marshmallow: Lessons in impulsivity.
It was a simple experiment that changed the way psychologists understands self-control and the ability to delay gratification. Preschoolers were asked to sit at a table, with a plate of marshmallows. The experimenter left the room and gave the child an important choice: eat the marshmallow right away or wait until the experimenter returned and have two marshmallows instead.
Have one marshmallow now, or wait and have two marshmallows.
Some children ate the marshmallow. Other children stared at the sweets intensively and reminded themselves that it’s better to have two later than one now. They covered their eyes, looked away from the marshmallow, or even pretended to eat it, licking their lips from its imagined deliciousness. Yet they resisted temptation and delayed gratification for a better outcome in the future.
I would have eaten the marshmallow – no doubt. As soon as the door clicked closed, and the experimenter was out of sight, I would have told myself something along the lines of “Just wait. You can do this…. just – ohhh…that was delicious!”
End of experiment.
To clinical psychologists (or to-be-ones like me), self-control is essential. We have to inhibit our judgment, advices, and responses, and allow the client to lead the session. Delaying such reactions can be challenging for someone like me (i.e., impulsive and extroverted).
Inhibiting social responses is difficult. I want to jump with excitement when a client has done their homework and gasp when I hear sad news. Although these reactions may be appropriate between friends (although I don’t know why I would congratulate my friends for doing their assignments), positive feedback in a therapeutic setting be should attuned to the client’s mood and personality.
I notice improvement, I jump on it.
I hear change, I highlight it.
I see a marshmallow, I eat it.
Withholding advice is also challenging. Lawyers and doctors have it easy. Lawyers are (over?)paid to tell you what to do in order to get the best outcome and doctors write it out on a prescription pad. Whether or not you choose to follow their advice is your business. Psychologists on the other hand are taught to guide clients through their own recovery. Success is defined by the client, not the therapist. This is a challenging and time consuming process that requires – you guessed it – self-control. It would be too easy (and ineffective) to tell my client how to think, behave, and feel. In my work with offenders I have found myself sitting on my hands, biting my lips, while containing the urge to stand up and yell “THEN JUST STOP BREAKING THE LAW!” Thankfully I have managed to curb that urge so far.
I like to think of my impulsive nature as a reflection of my genuine interest in the client’s experience. Once in a while, my spontaneity fits the situation and engages the client. Particularly with children – they light up when you show excitement and interest. Perhaps there is such a thing as planned impulsivity: an oxymoron describing a therapist’s ability to assess whether it is best to be restrained and matter-a-fact or be more spontaneous and direct.