“I think, therefore I can change what I am.” Walter Mischel, a Columbia University psychology professor renowned for his research about self-control, concludes his 2014 book, The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control, with this modification to Descartes’ famous proposition. Mischel, the creator of the “marshmallow test”, argues that self-control and the ability to delay gratification are critical for long-term health and for social and professional success. These skills are detectable at an early age, responsive to training, and able to help us shape who we are. His admission of his personal self-control short-comings (e.g., at one point he smoked more than 3 packs of cigarettes a day while aware of the adverse health effects) and the strategies he used to exercise self-control illuminate his presentation of the field of self-control research.
The Marshmallow test (formally known as “The preschool self-imposed delay of immediate gratification for the sake of delayed but more valued rewards paradigm”) exists in many iterations, but the basic set-up begins by having a researcher ask a preschool child (age 3 or 4) to select a tasty treat. The researcher leads the child into a room with a one-way mirror in which there are no toys or colorful distractors; there is only a chair and desk with the tasty treat and a bell atop it. The researcher explains to the child that he can ring the bell at any time to bring the researcher back into the room so that the child can eat the treat, or if the child waits until the researcher returns, then he can have two of the tasty treats. The difficulty of the task arises from the tension between our “hot system,” which acts quickly and reflexively and our “cool system,” which acts slowly and reflectively.
Mischel and his colleagues found, across several cultural settings, individual differences in children’s likelihood of delaying. Decades later, brain imaging of those who delayed immediate gratification as a child compared to those who did not revealed greater activity for the delayers in the brain’s prefrontal cortex—an area associated with impulse control. Mischel is careful to frame these results by noting that categorizing people as high or low-delayers, as though self-control is a stable and universal quality, is inaccurate. First, self-control is context-specific. For example, politicians (e.g., Bill Clinton) famously exert extreme self-control to be disciplined decision makers in their professional lives, and yet show an enormous lack of self-control in their private lives. Second, Mischel emphasizes that self-control abilities are changeable. Both nature and nurture play a role in determining self-control ability.
Several specific strategies can promote self-control. Mischel and his colleagues found that children were more or less likely to eat the marshmallow depending on how and what they thought about during that time. For example, children encouraged to think about how delicious the marshmallow would taste waited a shorter time than students who were encouraged to think about the marshmallow abstractly or to imagine it as something else, like a cloud. By about 5 or 6, children realize that obscuring the reward from view may help them delay. One trick that helped Mischel quit smoking was to associate cigarettes with the prospect of developing cancer and a haunting encounter he had with a man about to undergo radiation treatment.
Mischel encourages the use of “if-then” plans—plans in which people recognizes that if they are confronted by a trigger of the behavior they are trying to control, they will engage in a specific, more constructive behavior instead. To help self-regulate when recalling emotionally charged events (like the end of a romantic relationship) Mischel says that if people recalls the situation from an objective, fly-on-the-wall perspective, rather than recalling themselves as an actor, they are likely to be more level-headed. Mischel reports on research that suggests that individuals who view their current selves as closely related to their future selves save more for retirement.
To promote self-control in children parents should try to minimize the stress their kids experience, teach them that choices have consequences, encourage autonomy rather than controlling decision-making processes, and (perhaps most critically) model the type of self-control they would like their kids to exert. Executive function—the cognitive skill that allows us to assert self-control over our thoughts, actions, and emotions—is critical for students’ success. Mischel argues that there is no ambiguity about the need to promote executive function skills in school. He offers KIPP charter schools, schools that emphasize character development and college-going, as a model for how schools can help students (including economically disadvantaged students) learn these skills. With practice and the techniques that Mischel describes, we can resist the marshmallow, so that we can work towards becoming a better version of ourselves.
Mischel, W. (2014). The Marshmallow test: mastering self-control. New York: Little, Brown, and Company.