Author: Walter Mischel
APA Style Citation
Mischel, Walter (2014). The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control. New York; Little, Brown and Company.
Psychologist Walter Mischel lays out details of his famous The Marshmallow Test in three sections, the first, recounts the original study and questions whether self-control is prewired, the second examines how self-control can relate to other life experiences, and the third discusses the application of self-control in daily life with a focus on education. Mischel poses that he wants to examine the impact of self-control on behavior from pre-school through retirement.
Part I – Delay Ability: Enabling Self-Control
Mischel’s infamous Marshmallow Test conducted in the 1960’s at the Stanford University’s Bing Laboratory School is recounted as well as the long-term implications that have since been studied regarding the delay of gratification. The longitudinal study of children in the Marshmallow study that tracked student SAT scores in high school was never intended by the original test, rather, Mischel would often ask his own children who went to school with many of the participants how those who had been in the study were doing. Mischel began to see a pattern in his children’s responses and followed up when the marshmallow participants were adolescents. He began to see a correlation between those who did not eat the second marshmallow and those who had academic and social success. Mischel found a 210-point difference on SAT scores between the group who ate the marshmallows and those who did not. Mischel also asked the children’s parents about how they believed their children handled setbacks and how they planned ahead. As he periodically checked in with the participants, he found that between the ages of 27 and 32 the preschoolers who ate the marshmallow experienced lower levels of self-esteem and self-worth and had lower levels of education. These individuals also experienced higher levels of drug use and divorce than their counterparts who waited for the second marshmallow.
Part II – From Marshmallows in Pre-K to Money in 401(k)
Walter Mischel discusses the hot and cool systems, the hot system tells us what we want and the cool system is the self-control or the management system. Mischel recounts how the children in the study distracted themselves to avoid eating the second marshmallow; he discusses the importance of cognitive reappraisal in developing self-control. Mischel explains that early interventions can help students develop self-control because of the increased plasticity of the brain early in life. He also discusses the role of the lateral prefrontal cortex in the development of willpower and the role that executive functioning plays in decision-making. Mischel also discusses the importance of self-control outside of the educational environment, discussing the importance that self-control plays in diet, preparing for meetings, Olympic training, and kicking drug addiction. When individuals are able to see themselves in the future and see the benefits that their willpower will provide, they are more likely to resist the temptation. While individuals may be high in self-control, they may not be successful in all areas of their life; some individuals who can put off going out with friends to complete a work project may find themselves unable to resist the temptation of dessert after dinner or the new blouse they see in the window of a shop. The same principles of cognitive reappraisal that children use to delay gratification during the marshmallow test can also be applied to other situations in which demonstrating restraint in the present will lead to a more successful future.
Part III – From Lab to Life
In addition to discussing how parents can improve self-control in their children, Mischel features the KIPP schools to demonstrate the explicit teaching of self-control in children that might be at risk for low levels of delay of gratification. He discusses the rigid rules and guidelines that KIPP enforces as well as the belief in success instilled in all KIPP students. The KIPP program focuses on knowledge, hard work and self-control and helps students to create goals, monitor their progress and resist temptations that may inhibit progress toward their goals. These and other strategies implemented early in life can help children delay gratification in larger pursuits later in life.
Other Related Resources
Reenactment of the Marshmallow Test
Reenactment of the Marshmallow Test
Acing the Marshmallow test, APA Monitor: December 2014
What the Marshmallow Test really Teaches About Self-Control, The Atlantic
What does the Marshmallow Test actually Test? Business Week
Don’t: The Secret of Self-Control, The New Yorker
The New Marshmallow Test: Slate
Psychological Figures and Concepts
Mary Ainsworth: Attachment
Albert Bandura: Observational Learning
Angela Duckworth: Grit
Carol Dweck: Mindset
Judith Rich Harris: Impact of Nurture on Development
Joseph Wolpe: Overcoming phobias
Locus of Control
Theory of Mind