Filmed on Monday May 2, 02016

Walter Mischel

The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control

Walter Mischel is a professor in the Department of Psychology at Columbia University and author of the 02015 book, The Marshmallow Test: Why Self-Control Is the Engine of Success.

Can you pass the marshmallow test? You’re a little kid. A marshmallow is placed on the table in front of you. You’re told you can eat it any time, but if you wait a little while, you’ll be given two marshmallows to eat.

The kids who have the self-control to pass this most famous of psychological tests turn out to have more rewarding and productive lives. Walter Mischel, who first ran the test in the 1960s, spent the rest of his career exploring how self-control works, summarized in his 2014 book The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control. “The ability to delay gratification and resist temptation has been a fundamental challenge since the dawn of civilization,” he writes. “It is the ‘master aptitude’ underlying emotional intelligence, essential for constructing a fulfilling life.”

This talk spells out the remarkable things have has been learned about willpower and self-control in the individual. It also considers wider implications. Does it make a difference when an organization or society has more people able to fully engage self-control? Does it make a difference when that kind of behavior is publicly expected and trained for explicitly? Is there a social or political or cultural level of surmounting marshmallow-test temptations? That might be the essence of long-term behavior.

Thinking hot and cool

In the 1960s, Mischel and colleagues at Stanford launched a series of delayed-gratification experiments with young children using a method that later came to be known as “the marshmallow test.” A researcher whom the child knew and trusted, after playing some fun games together, suggested playing a “waiting game.” The researcher explained that the child could have either one or two of the highly attractive treats the child had chosen and was facing (marshmallows, cookies, pretzels)--depending on how long the child waited for them after the researcher left the room. The game was: at any time the child could ring a bell, and the researcher would come back immediately and the child could have one treat. To practice, the researcher left the room, the child rang the bell and the researcher came right back, saying, “You see, you brought me back. Now if you wait for me to come back by myself without ringing the bell or starting to eat a treat you can have both of them!!” The wait might be as long as 15 or 20 minutes. (About one third made it that far.)

The kids varied widely in how long they could stand it before ringing the bell. Mischel emphasizes that the focus of the research was to identify the specific cognitive strategies and mental mechanisms, as well as the developmental changes, that make delay of gratification possible--not to “test” or pigeonhole children. Between the ages of 4 and 6 years, for example, the older kids could delay their gratification longer, apparently as the impulse-overriding “executive function” of their maturing brains kicked in. And in some conditions it was easy for the children to wait, while under other conditions it was very difficult. The research sought to identify the cognitive skills that underlie willpower and long-term thinking and how they can be enhanced.

Longitudinal studies of the tested children suggested that something profound was going on. By the time they were adolescents, the kids who had been able to hold out longer for the bigger reward in some conditions were also likelier to have higher SAT scores, to function better socially, and to manage temptation and stress better. On into their adulthood, they were less likely to show extreme aggression, less likely to over-react if they became anxious about social rejection, and less likely to become obese. For the kids who did not hold out well and took the quick reward, Mischel said the findings suggested that “the inability to delay gratification can have quite serious potential negative effects.” (Mischel cautions that the longitudinal results are only correlations that describe group findings and do not allow accurate predictions for individual children.)

Can “delay ability” be trained? Mischel thinks it can, if we understand how our mind works. He and colleagues postulated a “Hot System” and a “Cool System” in the brain. (They are similar to Daniel Kahneman’s “System 1” and “System 2” in his book Thinking Fast and Slow.) The Hot System (Go!) is: emotional, simple, reflexive, fast, and centered in the amygdala. It develops early in the child and is exacerbated by stress. The Cool System (Know), on the other hand, is: cognitive rather than emotional, complex, reflective, slow, and centered in the frontal lobes and hippocampus. It develops later in the child and is made weaker by stress. In the Hot System the stimulus controls us; in the Cool System we control the stimulus.

You can chill a hot object of desire by representing it to yourself in Cool, abstract terms. Don’t think of the marshmallow as yummy and chewy; imagine it as round and white like a cotton ball. One little girl became patient by pretending she was looking at a picture of a marshmallow and “put a frame around it” in her head. “You can’t eat a picture,” she explained. (Girls were better handling temptation than boys.)

While coolly defusing a temptation, you can also make Hot the delayed consequences of yielding to it. Mischel was a three-pack-a-day smoker ignoring all warnings about cancer until one day he saw a man on a gurney in Stanford Hospital. “His head was shaved, with little green X’s, and his chest was bare, with little green X’s.” A nurse told him the X’s were for where the radiation would be targeted. “I couldn’t shake the image. It made hot the delayed consequences of my smoking.” Mischel kept that image alive in his mind while reframing his cigarettes as sources of poison instead of relief, and he quit.

“If you don’t know how to delay gratification,” he said, “you don’t have a choice. If you do know how, you have a choice.”

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