Book Review: The Marshmallow Test
The Marshmallow Test
By Walter Mischel
The experiment that Walter Mischel developed in a Stanford University lab nearly 50 years ago—offering preschoolers one marshmallow immediately or two marshmallows if they could resist eating the first marshmallow for a few minutes—is one of psychology’s most famous.
That’s because Mischel’s “marshmallow test” examines one of humankind’s greatest challenges: the willingness to delay gratification.
“Self-control ability early in life is immensely important for how the rest of life plays out,” Mischel explains. Studies show that those who can resist sweet fluffy treats for five minutes at age five tend to be more successful adults than those who can’t.
Self-control is regulated by the brain’s prefrontal cortex, the “executive function” center that lets us reason and plan. Mischel calls this the “cool system,” as contrasted with the limbic system’s fight-or-flight “hot” responses. The limbic system is all about instantaneity—the now—while the prefrontal cortex is all about the future.
Tracing the marshmallow test’s history and urging public-policy interventions aimed at improving poor children’s executive function, this book also offers strategies for improving self-control at any age. These include “if-then plans” based on identifying our triggers: e.g., “If I’m about to start screaming at my partner for hogging the newspaper, then I’ll simply ask for the Style section.”
“We can try in our halcyon days to connect with our future selves,” Mischel ventures, “to keep who and what we are trying to become in mind.” And then—here’s the hard part—making choices.