It’s Tempting to Skip Reading This….

February 12, 2012 by Ken Nowack

“I generally avoid temptation unless I can’t resist it.”
Mae West

I bet you can’t stop reading the rest of this Blog as it contains a hint about becoming more effective at resisting temptation.

Still reading?

THE MARSHMELLOW TEST

We know a lot about delayed gratification from the classic “marshmellow” study by Walter Mischel who followed children tempted to either sit at a table with one marshmellow in front of them to take immediately or to wait until a grown up comes back into the room to get two1. Some kids were excited to eat the one in from of them and others were able to wait as long as 20 minutes to get a bonus marshmellow. Mischel’s research found that the longer a child can wait, the better the outlook for success later in life including scores on SAT tests and overall academic achievement.

Most recently, Yale University researchers found that delaying gratification involves an area of the brain, the anterior prefrontal cortex, that is known to be involved in abstract problem-solving and keeping track of goals. Effective leaders seem to have activated this part of the brain to a high exent when they attempt to solve problems, analyze data and make decisions.

Most, but not all, executives seem to solve problems and make decisions pretty effectively. Our own research seems to confirm this. Recently we analyzed results from feedback on over 1,000 executives in diverse industries using one of our validated 360 assessments called Executive View 360 (EV360). EV360 measures 22 competencies divided into four domains: 1) Performance Leadership; 2) Change Leadership; 3) Interpersonal Leadership; and 4) Personal Leadership. We analyzed how over 13,000 managers, direct reports and others rated the 22 competencies for these 1,000 executives and found that Decision Making and Problem Analysis were ranked as the 3rd and 8th strongest competencies of the 22 measured (trustworthiness and oral communication were ranked highest and coaching/developing talent and change management were at the bottom of the list).

Still reading?

THE BIOLOGY OF DELAYED GRATIFICATION

We are beginning to get some hints about the biology underlying how all of us think, make decisions, take risks and avoid temptation. Our cognitive ability is largely fueled by the brain’s biggest energy source–glucose (same thing as your muscles). In fact, the brain consumes over 75% of the available glucose in the body and things like decision making, judgment, impusle control and will power might be the most demaning.

The brain’s glycogen gets recharged during sleep and gradually declines during the day. Decreased glucose available to our brain is linked to slower reaction time, memory, aggression, impusivlity, poor stress management, and emotional control. The descrease of glucose at the end of the day is a likely contributor to poor willpower and risk taking behavior.

In a series of recent interesting experiments, Matt Gailliot and colleagues at the University of Amsterdam have shown that increasing glucose can actually help individuals master temptation on willpower-demanding tasks2. These researchers have demonstrated that glucose may indeed be an important impulse control fuel that plays a key role in how leaders think, make decisions, take risks, and cope with ambiguity.

I thought this was a great excuse to eat some chocolate–at least until I asked my wife who is a registered dietitian if this was a great idea (she is the one who always tells me there are “no good or bad foods–just good and bad diets”). She reminded me that our body metabolizes sugar quickly but some food groups (e.g., fruits and vegetables) maintain a steady supply of glucose to our brain throughout the day (damn dietitians).

I guess it’s a good time to remind you of Korman’s Law: “The trouble with resisting temptation is it may never come your way again”…Be well….

  1. Mischel, W. (1996). From good intentions to willpower. In P.M. Gollwitzer and J.A. Bargh (Eds.), The psychology of action. (pp. 197–218). New York: Guilford []
  2. Gailliot, M.T. (2008). Unlocking the energy dynamics of executive functioning: Linking executive functioning to brain glycogen. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3, 245-263 []

Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist (PSY13758) and President & Chief Research Officer/Co-Founder of Envisia Learning, is a member of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations. Ken also serves as the Associate Editor of Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research. His recent book Clueless: Coaching People Who Just Don’t Get It is available for free for a limited time by signing up for free blog updates (Learn more at our website)

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