The first time I recall hearing about the “marshmallow test” was on an episode of “This American Life”, in 2012 (“Back to School”), featuring Paul Tough, author of “How Children Succeed“. It was an interesting episode, discussing challenges in the American school system, particularly with kids from disadvantaged backgrounds. And the marshmallow test experiments prompt a vivid image – a small child is presented with the option of having a single marshmallow right away, or waiting for up to 20 minutes, and being given two marshmallows. Longitudinal studies on a cohort of young children who were participants in this research revealed that those who were able to show restraint and self-control performed better in a wide range of ways in later life: improved SAT scores, higher education levels, better ability to maintain close relationships, etc. (Oh, and there were some brain differences indicated by an experiment involving fMRI, for what that’s worth.)
While fascinating, the research was also a bit depressing to me. I picture myself as one of the kids who would have gobbled down the marshmallow right away. And much of what I have heard regarding the marshmallow test seems to have been focusing on the predictive nature of the experiments, revealing the capacity for self-regulation that impacts many aspects of our lives. And if you’re one of the kids who lacks that self-regulation? Doomed to a life of poor, impulsive choices, apparently.
Another podcast, Invisibilia, changed my perspective on this. “The Personality Myth” episode explored the dynamic nature of personality. One of the experts interviewed was Walter Mischel, the psychologist who conducted the marshmallow test experiments. In the episode, he discussed something about the experiments that wasn’t usually mentioned when people described them – the fact that children could be taught strategies to help them resist the immediate temptation in favour of the delayed reward.
That’s much more uplifting than thinking that your destiny is set, and can be predicted by your ability as a preschooler to resist a treat.
Mischel discusses the marshmallow experiments along with related research on self-regulation in his recent book: The Marshmallow Test. (Some versions are “The Marshmallow Test: Why self-control is the engine of success”, but the title of the copy I have is “The Marshmallow Test: Mastering self-control”.)
This book is a bit of a hybrid. It’s a memoir, telling stories about Mischel’s research over several decades, his own struggles with temptations (such as nicotine), and vignettes of success stories and individuals involved in the research described in the book. It summarizes psychological science research from various fields relating to self-control and success. While there are some tips provided that can be used by people hoping to improve their own self-regulation, and/or develop these skills in their children, I’ll note that it’s not really a self-help book.
The first part of the book is focused on findings of his original experiments, and the cognitive and emotional skills of children who were able to exhibit self-restraint. I enjoyed reading about the experiments (including details not usually discussed in mainstream media – e.g., children weren’t all faced with marshmallows, but were offered their preferred treat option, such as a cookie). The marshmallow tests were performed with children of various ages – most 3 and 4 year olds showed little restraint (and awareness of strategies that would help with self-control), but by age 5 or 6, many children exhibited strategies to help with self-control (e.g., having the treat out of view, finding ways to distract themselves). Imagining the marshmallow as a picture or as fluffy clouds appeared to be an effective strategy that helped some children to reduce the appeal of the treat, shifting the focus from the delicious nature of the marshmallow to an abstract representation. By doing this, the “hot” thinking associated with the marshmallow stimulus is replaced by more deliberate and controlled “cool” thinking. Mischel spends some time discussing this model early on, which carries throughout the book. We give into temptations as a result of the stimuli triggering our ancient hot systems, but can delay gratification via the cool thinking that occurs in the prefrontal cortex. These systems are affected by a number of things, including the relevance/attraction of the stimulus, our emotions, and stress. (I don’t think it will shock anyone to hear that stress amplifies hot thinking and reduces cool thinking.)
Mischel takes particular care to highlight the fact that self-regulation skills exist, that there are techniques can help with shifting from hot to cool thinking, and that these techniques can be learned. He also says that “The Marshmallow Test was not designed as a ‘test’.”, although early indication of self-regulatory abilities is remarkably predictive and stable in most individuals.
In addition to the delayed gratification studies with marshmallows, Mischel and his then-graduate student Charlotte Patterson conducted experiments involving a device developed to be highly enticing and distracting to young children: the “Mr. Clown Box” experiments. These aren’t as well-known as the marshmallow experiments in general culture, but revealed some strategies to resist temptation/distraction. Preschool children were given a task to do in a room that also contained a box featuring a clown face and cabinets of toys visible within; an integrated speaker allowed the clown to “talk” to them, trying to entice them to play with the toys rather than working on the boring assigned task . (I find this a bit creepy – “Come play with the toys INSIDE ME!!!“, but the 70s were a different time, I guess.)
Mischel and Patterson found that children could develop and use “if–then” plans to avoid the normal hot response and substitute a cooler one, as in an example from the book: “When Mr. Clown Box says to look at him and play with him then you can just not look at him and say, ‘I’m not going to look at Mr. Clown Box.’. This type of method can work for people beyond pre-schoolers who want to avoid temptations. (E.g., “If I buy a coffee by the donut display, I will walk away after filling my mug, and not look at the donuts inside the display case.”*) Ideally, if practised over time, these plans can help a person build habits, and the cool responses become automatic, less effortful.
Nightmare-fodder clown aside, I think this set of experiments might be particularly relevant today, with all the digital distractions that we face from our laptops, cell phones, and other devices. Many of the suggestions that have been made regarding reducing distractions falls into the “if-then” plan model – e.g., if you must have your cell phone with you in class, turn off notifications during class time. I do suspect that the allure (or addictive nature?) of these distractions goes beyond that of a toy-filled wooden box, though.
The second part of the book deals with issues relating to delayed gratification and self-regulation in adult life. These chapters discus research findings from various aspects of psychology relating to success: the importance of executive function (cognitive skills and neural mechanisms involved in deliberate control of thoughts, impulses, actions, and emotions; well-developed EF allows good planning, problem-solving, and coping with unexpected situations), growth mindset vs. fixed mindset (the belief that we can grow and improve vs. possessing static skills/abilities), mirror neurons (which may contribute to empathy), and optimism. The dynamic nature of willpower is explored – it is possible for an individual to be highly self-disciplined in some areas, and woefully undisciplined in others. Mischel also talks about the difficulty we have envisioning our future selves (often shortchanging ourselves in things like poor retirement planning), psychological distance (what feels more distant is typically more abstract), and self-distancing as a way to cope with painful situations. A lot of this overlaps with other books I’ve read over the past few years (Dweck‘s “Mindset“, Kahneman‘s “Thinking Fast and Slow“, Tavris & Aronson‘s “Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)“, etc.), but Mischel’s book was actually published before many of these other books, and I appreciated his approach to these topics.
In the last part of the book, Mischel highlights the success of KIPP schools, and the need for public policies to reflect evidence about developing self-control at an early age. He also summarizes some key strategies that could be applied by those striving to improve their own self-regulation skills, or foster such skills in their children.
I enjoyed this book, which I found an easy read. It has given me food for thought with respect to trying to support students in developing/strengthening self-regulation skills (e.g., effective studying, avoiding digital distractions), but it also made me think that it would be much more effective to address self-control skills when children are young. As someone who is trying to improve her own self-control** and make better decisions, the book has provided some valuable findings from research that I’ll try to act on, too. I recommend this book if you’re interested in the psychology of self-control and want to learn more about the science behind it.
Mischel, W. (2014). The marshmallow test: Mastering self-control. Little, Brown and Company.
Patterson, C. J., & Mischel, W. (1975). Plans to resist distraction. Developmental Psychology, 11(3), 369.
* The coffee station in the main campus cafeteria is right next to the donut display.
** I may have eaten at least one donut while writing this post.