A 5-year-old is seated at a table in an empty room. Before her are two plates: one with a single marshmallow, and another with two, and next to the treats is a bell. An adult tells her that she has two choices: She can wait until the adult returns, and get two marshmallows, or she can ring the bell at any time and receive just one. The adult leaves. The waiting begins.
No, this is not a form of child torture. It’s the set-up for psychologist Walter Mischel’s famous “delay of gratification task,” designed in the 1960’s at Stanford University. The experiment came to be known as the Marshmallow Test, which is also the name of Mischel’s new book.
Why would you want to read a whole book about an evil test designed to tempt children with treats? Because it’s about a lot more than that: As the book’s subtitle indicates, it’s about “mastering self-control,” a goal that is within everyone’s grasp, Mischel says.
As Mischel engagingly documents in the book, study after study has found that children’s ability to delay gratification on this test predicts all sorts of outcomes later in life. Kids who delay longer on the test are judged by their peers as more confident and intelligent teenagers, and earn higher SAT scores. As adults, they report less recreational drug use and have lower Body Mass Index scores.
Turns out the Marshmallow Test is a powerful measure of self-control, the ability to override what Mischel calls the “hot” system — our emotional, unconscious drives — and activate the “cool” system — our more reflective, cerebral side. Mischel argues that we can learn valuable lessons from kids’ performance on this test about how to conquer our grownup marshmallows, whether it’s that cigarette we shouldn’t smoke or that relationship we should end.
One of those lessons is that in order to resist something tempting, we have to “cool it down.” Kids who were able to delay the marshmallow (or Oreo, or other tantalizing treat of their choice) longer did so by using clever, sometimes hilarious forms of self-distraction. Some turned away from the marshmallow, looked up at the ceiling, or talked to themselves. Some were especially creative: “[T]hey composed little songs…made funny and grotesque faces, picked their ear canals and toyed with what they discovered there, and created games with their hands and feet, playing their toes as if they were piano keys,” Mischel writes. While you might not want to try these precise strategies at your next team meeting, there are still ways you can cool down your temptations, Mischel suggests. A study of people with food craving issues, for example, found that focusing on cool features like the size and shape of food, as opposed to hot features like smell and taste, helped curb cravings.
In order to conquer temptation, Mischel argues, it’s also important to re-frame how we think about the future. One of the things that makes it hard for us to exercise willpower, he argues, is that we often focus on what we want right now (that drink) and forget how we’ll feel a few hours, days, weeks from now (hung over). When people are prompted to think about the future, they tend to make better choices. A study with college students found that those who saw an avatar of their future selves (representing them at about 68 years of age) put 30% more of their hypothetical paycheck toward their 401k than those who saw an avatar of their current selves. Feeling more emotionally connected to your future self, Mischel argues, allows you to factor the future into your decision-making more carefully.
Another self-control strategy Mischel advocates is to have an “if-then” plan for when temptations arise. In one especially torturous variation on the Marshmallow Test, children were instructed to work on a boring task (e.g., putting pegs in a peg board) while repeatedly being distracted by “Mr. Clown Box,” a wooden box with a smiling clown’s face, flashing colored lights, and toys that rotated around very slowly. (I’ve seen a picture. It’s as weird as it sounds.) If they could continue working for 10 minutes without being tempted by the clown’s repeated enticements (“I love to have children play with me. Will you play with me? Just come over and push my nose and see what happens. Oh please, won’t you push my nose?”), they could play with the new toys; if not, they could play only with broken toys. Those kids who were given a plan for how to keep working even when the clown tempted them (e.g. respond with, “No, I can’t, I’m working”) succeeded in getting more work done with far fewer disruptions than those without a plan.
As adults, we constantly face our own (hopefully less deranged) versions Mr. Clown Box — that friend who insists we go out when we know we have to stay home and write that paper, for example. Having an if-then plan in place will help us keep our proverbial asses in our chairs, says Mischel. It’s even better if these plans include what he calls a “binding commitment”: If you want to quit smoking, say, authorize a trusted friend (maybe not the aforementioned one) to mail a check to a hated cause every time you light up.
Mischel persuasively argues that these techniques enhance self-control in the lab, but he didn’t convince me that they’d be as effective in everyday life. Can thinking about the shape of the donut, rather than its deliciousness, really stop us from eating it? Can focusing on our future selves help us put away more money in our real retirement accounts, not just in virtual ones? Will an if-then plan make that tempting friend leave us alone?
Even if these strategies can help in the occasional sticky situation, I wonder if they’re sustainable over the long-term. Mischel insists that when it comes to improving self-control, “the prescription is to ‘practice, practice, practice’ until it becomes automatic and intrinsically rewarding.” This sounds reasonable enough, but how does it work? Why is it, for example, that so many people find it difficult to stick to their diets? I wish Mischel had delved deeper into these complex, real-world issues.
At times it seems as though Mischel sees these self-control strategies as a cure-all, prescribing them for problems that would best be handled in other ways. He gives the example of “Bill,” a man who explodes at his wife for repeatedly ignoring him at breakfast, choosing to scan the newspaper headlines instead of talking to him. Mischel suggests that Bill could cope with this problem first by distracting himself — perhaps by counting backward from 100 and then substituting an alternative to his typical angry response, such as, “Can you pass the business section?”
I’m skeptical. Sounds to me like Bill’s got some issues — apparently the clinical term is “ high rejection sensitivity” — that he needs to work through. Maybe he had crappy parents, or was bullied at school, and those experiences made him especially sensitive to being rejected. Rather than counting backward, Bill might consider talking to a therapist.
Mischel’s message — that self-control is a skill we can improve through practice, rather than a fixed, inborn trait, is hopeful and refreshing. I just wish the book had made me believe it.