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The Marshmallow Test
Understanding Self-control and How to Master It
In the 1960s, at the Bing nursery school in Stanford, California, pre-school children were given an unusual test. They were taken into a room, sat in front of a table on top of which were placed two delicious marshmallows (or similar treats).
The children were then given a simple instruction: if you resist eating the marshmallows and wait until the researcher comes back, you will receive both marshmallows. If, however, you cannot wait, simply ring the bell and you will be allowed to eat one marshmallow straight away. The experiment was a test of self-control, and the results were astonishing.
Looking through one-directional glass, researchers observed the responses. Some kids agonised, staring at the treats until the temptation became too much. Others tried distraction techniques. 'Enrico tipped his chair far back against the wall, banging it nonstop while staring up at the ceiling with a bored, resigned look, breathing hard, seemingly enjoying the large crashing sounds he was making.' He got two marshmallows. 'Blanca kept herself busy with a mimed conversation like a Charlie Chaplin monologue, instructing herself on what to do and what to avoid to get the treats.'
Walter Mischel, the lead scientist and author of The Marshmallow Test, did not expect the experiment to tell him much more than about how kids exercise self-control, but as the years passed, he suspected that he had hit upon something more profound. His three daughters attended the Bing nursery school and were familiar with some of the kids who had been tested. Periodically, he would ask them how they were getting on. He noticed that those who had been good at resisting temptation seemed to be doing better - far better - than those who hadn't.
So he conducted a more systematic follow-up. 'The findings surprised us from the start and they still do,' Mischel writes. 'Pre-schoolers who delayed longer on the test were rated a dozen years later as adolescents who exhibited more self-control in frustrating situations; yielded less to temptation; were less distractible . . . When the SAT scores of children with the shortest delay times (bottom third) were compared with those with longer delay times (top third), the overall difference in their scores was 210 points.'
Much of Mischel's work since the 1960s has been probing the consequences of this remarkable finding. Why is self-control so predictive of how people get on in life? Is the willpower to avoid temptation something that is hardwired, or can it be grown? And what are the implications for parents, teachers and policymakers?
Mischel's case is pretty optimistic. He argues that the ability to delay gratification is important because it is through patience that we improve. If we always forgo the hard work necessary to develop, we cannot build skill or knowledge. The desire for instant gratification, he says, is associated with a primitive part of the brain called the limbic system. The capacity to control these impulses is based in the prefrontal cortex, associated with rationality. Mischel represents willpower as a battle between these forces.
The good news is that though differences in self-control are partly genetic, willpower can be strengthened. Students who are taught to think of self-control as rather like a muscle that can be developed over time have, on average, stronger willpower. In other words, the very belief that willpower can be developed motivates people to focus on long-term projects, and avoid immediate temptations. Many schools are now focusing on building these aspects of character. The key is to give students the opportunity to practice in school the critical behaviours that nurture self-control, grit and other character skills. If you want kids to learn how to get over frustrations quickly, bounce back from failures and work independently with focus, they have to be given the chance to do these things in their academic classes.
Towards the end of the book, Mischel moves into more philosophical territory. He accepts that always forgoing pleasure for long-term gain is a recipe for a boring life. Ultimately, he argues, it is about striking a balance. Sometimes, it is nice to have a fry-up, or get sloshed, or put our feet up when we could be beavering away: these are the things that give life meaning. But if we do them too often we hit the paradox of hedonism: we become unhappy and, often, depressed.
It would have been a better book if Mischel had explored whether our contemporary culture is good or bad for willpower. My sense is that TV programmes such as The X Factor, which acquaint young people with the idea of overnight success, weaken it. They teach children to think that they can reach the top in the time it takes Simon Cowell to click his fingers. That corrodes the willingness to make sacrifices: why bother if success is ultimately capricious?
If so, Mischel's work will be in demand for years to come. As our culture becomes ever more superficial, the need to build willpower will become ever more imperative.
We need willpower to resist our desire for instant gratification, but first we need to know our enemy, says Walter Mischel
Today, we want everything now, yet you've just written a book about self-control. Why?
It's a widespread perception that the world is more and more one in which people are orientated to immediate gratification and don't know how to delay it. But when you look closely, I think that's probably not the case. If anything, there has been improvement in overall self-control. In fact, we're attempting to test that question in a study now.
What is really going on then?
There are a lot of reasons to think that many children growing up in the information technology revolution are developing the skills to delay gratification very well. That ability – psychologists call it executive control – shows whether they can keep a goal in mind, suppress impulses that interfere with reaching that goal, and use attention control abilities in the brain's prefrontal cortex to keep marching on until they reach that goal.
Whether they use these skills is a different question. My grandchildren have a tremendous capacity to delay gratification, but they very frequently choose not to. I think a deeper look at what goes on in self-control, or willpower, makes it clear that both skill and motivation are required, and there are lots of people who have the skills but don't have the motivation.
Is the marshmallow test at the heart of your research into self-control?
Yes. In the 1960s at Stanford University, we set up a study using pre-school children and gave them a choice between one reward, say a marshmallow or a cookie, that they could have immediately, or they could get two if they waited up to 20 minutes. There was a bell to ring to call the researcher back into the room if they wanted to eat the first reward. We observed the behaviour of kids who managed to wait, and the first thing they did was transform the situation from an effortful one to a much easier one.
How do the children manage to wait?
They try to turn around in their chairs so they don't face the goodies, they look away, or invent interesting things to do to. For example, they begin to sing little songs, or explore their nasal and ear canals and toy with what they discover. We see a steady progression over the early years, from self-distraction to the use of abstraction, that is, they build pretend brick walls between themselves and the marshmallow or goodies. They use imagination to cool the situation.
Did you explore this?
With one little girl who rang the bell in less than a minute, we ran a test to see if she could change how long she waited by changing how she thought about the cookies. If we suggested, for example, she should make believe that they're not real, that they're just a picture, she could wait 15 minutes.
We learned that the way the object of desire is appraised makes a huge difference. If I know I can't resist chocolate mousse on the dessert tray in the restaurant, I can devise a plan beforehand in which I imagine a cockroach nibbled on it before it was served to me. Then I've lost my desire for it instantly.
Does learning to delay gratification as a child have an effect later in life?
Some years after the experiments I began to suspect some connection between behaviour in our experiments and how the people fared as adults. By the age of 25 to 30, we found the "delayers" were more able to reach long-term goals, used risky drugs less, achieved higher educational levels and had a significantly lower body mass index. In 2009, we scanned delayers' brains and found more activity in the prefrontal cortex, used for problem-solving, creative thinking and control of impulsive behaviour. So learning to delay gratification early correlates with success as an adult, and the techniques can be applied to everything from coping with heartbreak to weight control, retirement planning and smoking.
Smoking and retirement sound very different.
The same principles apply to help me defer taking the next cigarette or not use my pay cheque for my immediate pleasure and instead put something away for my future self. The fundamental principle is to take the heat out of what is in front of me and focus on the consequences of a delay.
Good trick, defusing the situation, but how?
This requires thinking about the brain/mind as having two different aspects. One is the hot emotional system, which is immediate and automatic. It is enormously important because it elicits instantaneous responses, like grab the cookie, go for the temptation, duck when you hear a bullet, slam on the brakes when you see an oncoming car, and so on. The hot emotional system is involved in impulsivity and immediate gratification.
The cool system involves the prefrontal cortex, and particularly the attention control areas and imagination areas. It developed later in our evolution and is much slower to respond. Both hot and cool systems are in a reciprocal relationship: to have self-control, we have to slow down the hot system and activate the cool system. At the age of 20 I have to be able to imagine myself as 40 years older if I want to have the motivation to put some of the money into a retirement plan, rather than buy a car that I really can't afford now.
That's asking a lot of an immature person.
It's true that the hot system is there from the start of life and the cool system develops over time. But developmental change in childhood lays down the fundamental skills that are essential for executive functions and for self-control. They are, potentially, available to children by the time they're 4, 5 and 6 years old.
If we do develop good self-control as a child, can it still be derailed?
Yes, very easily. We're all open to enormous temptations. Advertising is brilliant at creating temptations that are extremely hard to resist. What has been widely ignored in the research about self-control is the importance of the standards we develop fairly early in life for determining when we feel entitled to indulge ourselves.
How does that work?
For example, it's possible to have a theory of self-control in which you work like the devil while you are sitting at the desk in, say, the Oval Office, but you are entitled to have whatever pleasures you like when you're not. The entitlement theories, the standards and beliefs we develop, are enormously important in making the decisions, including automatic decisions, about whether or not we resist temptations. That's why a discussion of what happens in self-control can't be cut off from motivational aspects.
Did you grow up in a family with a lot of willpower?
No. In 1938, I was 8 years old, growing up in Vienna in an upper middle class family when the Nazis and Hitler annexed Austria, and we had to flee. We were very lucky to get out alive, with nothing. So my early life story was one of growing up in a family that had been quite fortunate in life going to live, essentially, in extreme poverty in Brooklyn, and then I was trying to figure out what I could do to construct a new life. Schooling became very important because I realised that success in school was the way to get out of the tough situation the family was in.
How is your willpower now, 76 years later?
I'm everything but a great personal model of willpower. On the one hand, I've had enough willpower to persist at the problem of studying willpower for over 50 years. But I hate standing in long lines, and I very often get impatient with students if they haven't done the impossible, such as complete a data analysis that should take two weeks in two days.
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