What can marshmallows teach people about achieving success in life? They can teach people about self control; not that people who inherently have self-control are more successful, but that people are capable of learning self-control in order to increase successful outcomes. Dr. Walter Mischel first administered the marshmallow test to young children in the 1960s. On September 23 Mischel published his book, The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control, which describes the research on human behavior and learning that came out of the initial exercise.
Psychologist Walter Mischel created the marshmallow test nearly 50 years ago to examine the nature of self-control. Children were presented with one marshmallow by an adult who then left the room. The children were told that if they waited until the adult came back they would be given two marshmallows to eat. Some children were willing to wait for the extra treat, some called the adult back to say they had decided to eat the first marshmallow immediately, and some just popped the sweet into their mouth. This part of the data did not surprise Mischel; he expected to find variation.
However, researchers were astonished when they tracked educational outcomes for the children as they aged. There was a strong, direct link between waiting for the second marshmallow and higher SAT scores. Those who waited for two marshmallows also worked better with others, used drugs at lower rates as young adults, and stayed more fit as they entered middle age. Exercising self-control at a young age correlates with outcomes people use to measure societal success.
The results of the long-term study caused some people to see self-control and the resulting success as fixed aspects of a person’s nature. Self-control was viewed as an immutable characteristic like IQ and artistic ability; but almost no part of intelligence is fixed, least of all self-control.
Mischel found that self-control was a learned behavior and could be taught to children and adults through explicit instruction. He feels that nothing is predetermined. This is what marshmallows can teach people about achieving success in life, according to Mischel’s research and his new book.
Mischel has become the world leader on self-control and how to acquire it. His book identifies delayed gratification as key to cognitive functioning, a healthier lifestyle and a greater sense of self-worth. It goes on to demonstrate how will-power can be learned as an adult to meet goals such as quitting smoking, controlling weight, managing money, making decisions and even overcoming heartbreak. Basic economics and decision making theory states that people constantly balance short-term utility with future utility. Giving more weight to future satisfaction usually compels people to make better choices. For example, when teens do their homework instead of playing video games they get better grades, increase their options for college and build skills necessary to complete more challenging work, but it does not feel as good in the moment.
Mischel says the test was not developed to see if children ate the marshmallow or not. It was designed to examine what things children did that encouraged them to give in to temptation or to delay gratification. Watching a recreation of the marshmallow test it becomes obvious that staring at the treat, playing with and tasting it are not conducive to self-control. Children who were able to ignore the marshmallow or constantly reminded themselves of their future reward had more success in waiting for the adult to return with the second piece of gooey goodness.
Mischel explains that the marshmallow test illustrates the battle between two brain systems. The limbic system, the primitive part of the brain, responds to stimuli instantly and emotionally and allowed humans to survive an early predator-filled environment. The pre-frontal cortex controls higher brain function such as controlling attention and emotion, planning for the future and delaying gratification. Mischel relates the two systems to “hot-thinking” and “cool-thinking.” The more exposure a person’s senses have to a stimulus the “hotter” his or her thinking becomes. Once one gives in to an impulse it is harder to concentrate on the consequences of a behavior.
The keys to self-control are to avoid temptation, practice self-distraction, envision future pay-offs and the resulting feelings, and talk oneself through the situation. In fact, when researchers suggest children think of a funny memory or story the children have an easier time resisting the marshmallow. Keeping the brain occupied on something besides instant gratification helps the pre-frontal cortex do its work.
In another test, children were put in a room with a clown-box toy that lit up and talked, encouraging the children to play with it. The children were told that if they completed a task first, then they would be able to play with additional toys. Because the clown-box actively called for attention it was hard to ignore, but researchers found that if they suggested specific strategies to the children, like turning away from it when it spoke, the children were more likely to resist temptation and complete the task. The researchers helped the children by creating an if…then… plan. “If the clown-box talks then I will turn away.” A very targeted plan of action creates more success than a vague goal of ignoring the clown-box or other temptation.
Mischel found that the adults who had been able to wait for two marshmallows as children were better at pursuing long-term goals. They actively developed their pre-frontal cortex and increased their ability to make good decisions and choices. Mischel also found that stress often undermines the pre-frontal cortex and allows the limbic system to take over. Children living with chronic stress have a very hard time “cooling” their thinking and listening to their pre-frontal cortex. Nothing in their experience confirms a belief in future rewards. Because the pre-frontal cortex is also tied to regulating emotions these children are likely to have a difficult time navigating the world.
The exciting part of Mischel’s research and his book is that he has developed concrete lessons to teach the skills of self-control. People of any age can learn to distract themselves from temptation, create plans and avoid being at the whim of their limbic systems. Parents and educators can use Mischel’s book to help children learn the behaviors they need for success. Mischel states, “For me, the marshmallow test is not an indicator that our future lives are already determined when we’re four years old, but that our potential for maximizing our lives involves a set of skills that are already visible and teachable at age four.”
What can marshmallows teach people about achieving success in life? They teach that self-control is an important skill to possess in order to ensure positive outcomes in life. More importantly, they teach that will-power is not an inherent attribute but a behavior that can be learned and developed.
By: Rebecca Savastio