In the early 1960s, a Stanford psychologist named Walter Mischel began a series of famous experiments with snacks and kids. Mischel told his subjects they could have one little treat now or two if they waited awhile. The results varied widely. As Mischel and co-author Ozlem Ayduk note in their chapter of 2004's Handbook of Self-Regulation, the definitive psychology text on willpower, the very idea of delayed gratification baffled kids under 4. But nearly 60% of 12-year-olds were able to wait the full 25 minutes until Mischel returned with the two promised sweets.
Mischel, who now teaches at Columbia, theorized that if he could focus attention on the delayed reward, he could get kids to wait longer. So in some experiments he kept the two treats visible. Sometimes he also placed the single snack next to the two others, to emphasize the bounty that patience offered. But he found that if the kids could see any of the treats, they broke down much faster. The physical presence of a cookie or marshmallow seemed to allow what Mischel called its "hot" qualities--its yummy, consummatory immediacy--to overwhelm any cooling focus on doubled rewards in the future. At the end of the chapter, Mischel and Ayduk note, disappointingly, that psychologists still don't have an answer to the most pressing question regarding self-regulation, one with great consequences for the nation's girth: Can willpower be taught?
But I think it can. Consider the cases of Giada De Laurentiis and Suzanne Goin, top chefs who, despite the hot rewards that surround them every day, manage to remain vanishingly thin. I wondered if, by examining how they do it, I might learn to deploy what psychologists call "effortful control" when passing the vending machine at 4 p.m.
De Laurentiis and Goin occupy completely different strata in the food world, but both are accomplished cooks. De Laurentiis, 35, is the host of a Food Network program, Everyday Italian, that has become so successful that it airs 14 times a week. She just finished a 34-city tour for Giada's Family Dinners, her second best seller in two years. On the day I joined the tour in the Bay Area last month, more than 1,200 people waited in line for up to three hours to see her. I heard half a dozen young women tell De Laurentiis they had enrolled in culinary school because of her. One young man was so awestruck that he blurted that De Laurentiis should leave her husband for him (which was all the more awkward since the husband in question, 42-year-old clothing designer Todd Thompson, was standing nearby).
Los Angeles chef Goin doesn't quite have De Laurentiis' effortless star power. She is 39 but talks like a teenager: in the course of a two-hour interview, she used like more than 200 times, as in, "I think all the diet stuff is, like, crazy." But Goin has roused the L.A. food scene with her restaurants Lucques and A.O.C. (which stands for appellation d'origine contrôlée, a French guarantee that a product was made in a certain area). Last month Goin was named best chef in California by the distinguished James Beard Foundation, which also named her 2005 book, Sunday Suppers at Lucques, best professional cookbook.