The Marshmallow Test

Walter Mischel - The Marshmallow Test

Why Self-Control is The Engine of Success


Summarizing the Argument - Self Control is a Learnable & Trainable Set of Cognitive Skills

  • Some people are better than others in their ability to resist temptation and regulate painful emotions.
  • These differences become visible as early as the preschool years.
  • For the most part, the differences are stable overtime and predict highly consequential psychological and biological outcomes later in life.
  • But the traditional belief that willpower is a fixed, inborn trait is false.
  • Instead, self control skills, both cognitive and emotional, can be learned, enhanced and harnessed so that they’re activated automatically in the situations that call for them.
  • We are not the mere victims of our biological and experiential pasts.  Self-control skills allow us to intervene in the developmental process of being shaped by our circumstances by giving us the power to actively construct the environments that give our lives their shapes.
  • Self-control involves more than determination.  It requires strategy and insight as well as goals and motivation.  To make the effortful effortless, one must strive to craft a life where persistence is rewarding is rewarding in its own right.   

The Test Itself: A Powerful Predictor - Not a Definite Fate

Originally performed on preschool children, the Marshmallow Test was designed to test the subject’s ability to delay gratification.  The test was designed to tease out the psychological and behavioral strategies that make self control possible, not to test a child’s potential, although the two are correlated.  The test goes as follows:

The child and a trusted researcher enter the testing room.  In the room there is a table, a chair, and upon the table, a bell, and two dishes.  In first dish rests a single marshmallow.  In the second, two or more marshmallows.  The researcher instructs the child that he/she can either enjoy the single marshmallow now or wait until the researcher returns (15-20 minutes) and enjoy all of the marshmallows.  The child must stay in the room, seated in the chair until the researcher returns.  The child is also instructed that if at any point they’d like to stop waiting and enjoy the single marshmallow, all they have to do is ring the bell and they can have the single marshmallow

What It Actually Tests:

The Marshmallow Test is a test of “Delay Ability”.  The test doesn’t reveal how tough someone is, or how good they are at resisting temptation.  The test reveals how good someone is at making effortful restraint effortless. 


Two Systems: Hot and Cool

When presented with a stimulus, the stimulus’s appetitive, rewarding quality is assessed by the hot system.  Then, its abstract and cognitive features are processed by the cold system.   The power of the stimulus doesn’t belong to the stimulus.  Instead, the power of the stimulus depends on how it is appraised.  The key to self-control is a strong cool system.    

The Hot System – The Limbic Brain

burning rubber
  • Fast and reflexive
  • Immediate action
  • Fear, anger, hunger, sex
  • Unconscious desires
  • Freud’s “Id”

The hot system is impervious to the consequences of its actions.  It’s the unconscious structure of the mind that contains our biological impulses.  The hot system makes the dieter take a bite of the pizza.  The hot system makes the addict buy his next pack of cigarettes.  The hot system lashes out a family member when they don’t act as expected.  The hot system rings the bell and eats the marshmallow.

The Cool System – The Prefrontal Cortex

  • Slow and controlled
  • Conscious thought
  • Inhibits inappropriate action
  • Imaginative and integrative
  • Regulates the hot system
  • Distinctly human
  • Freud’s “Super-ego”

The cool system develops gradually.  It starts to show its face in the preschool years but doesn’t finish developing until the mid twenties.  This book is all about enhancing the development of the cool system. 

Relating The Systems  

A person with low self-control has a hot system that systematically overpowers the control of the cool system.  Someone with high self-control is marked has a cool system powerful enough calm the hot system.  The person with low self-control is like a car with an incredibly powerful engine but no brakes or steering wheel.  Developing self-control is like fitting the powerful car with effective brakes and steering hardware.

The hot and cool system exists act reciprocally.  When one becomes more active, the other becomes less active.  The two systems share a limited supply of cognitive energy and the activity of one generally undermines the activity of the other. 

We Need Them Both - For Different Reasons 

The hot system saves our lives almost everyday.  The hot system makes us step slam on the brakes within a fraction of second when we drive our cars.  It makes us duck when we hear gunshots.  It makes sure we eat enough food to survive.  The hot system is the reason our ancestors survived on the primitive earth and we still owe a lot to this part of ourselves. 

The cool system makes society and cooperation possible.  Likewise, the cool system makes it possible for an animal (humans) to transcend its ancestral impulses.  The cool system is the driver in the driver’s seat.  It lets us chart our own paths as individuals and as societies.


The Strength Model of Self-Control

The “Strength Model” of self-control implies that willpower is a limited resource.  In this model, when you actively exert volitional effort, subsequent volitional efforts cannot be as strong as the first.  Here, willpower is like a muscle.  The more you use it, the more likely it will be fatigued when it’s called upon in the near future. 

This model has been proven by experiments that show that willpower does fatigue.  For example, if a person is subjected to an effortful task like a math test before they undergo a test of their delay ability, their delay ability will be comparitvely weaker than if they were fresh.  However, how we interpret the Strength Model is much more important than its direct implications. 

The Power of Expectations

The motivational interpretation states that our attitude regarding using self-control and our beliefs about how much we can endure are the two most important determinants of how strong our willpower is when it’s put to the test.  The person who thinks he can and the person who thinks he can’t are both right.  Likewise, the person who enjoys exerting effort in the pursuit of their goals for efforts own sake will have far more effort available to give.  The key to developing the set of cognitive skills that we call “self-control” is to change your attitude about what it feels like to exert the effort and at the same time, stretch your beliefs of how much effort you’re able to give before you fatigue.  Just like in weight training, successful people learn to love the burn and recognize that the harder they work now, the easier hard work will feel in the future.  The motivational interpretation grants permission to the power of momentum. 


The Core Strategies of Self Control

Cognitive Reappraisal

Effective self-control strategies cool down the hot components of rewarding stimuli.  This cooling down is done by shifting attention from the “hot”, appetitive components of a stimulus towards the cool, abstract components.  Thinking about a marshmallow as a cylindrical cloud instead of a sweet and soft unit of mouth pleasure accomplishes this cooling.  This is called, cognitive reappraisal.

Cooling can also be accomplished by manipulating the temporal characteristics of a situation.  The hot system overvalues immediate rewards at the expense of delayed rewards.  To reverse this process, cool the now and heat the later.  For example, conceptualize the immediate consequences of eating the marshmallow as an unhealthy spike in blood sugar, fat deposited on the body, and immediate shame.  In the same way, heat the future by replacing contemplation of whether or not to act with immediate senses of self-pride, health benefits, and momentum building for future challenges.  

If-Then Strategizing

If-Then Strategies are designed to entrain productive responses in difficult situations.  For example, if presented with the temptation to smoke a cigarette, then immediately say to yourself “No!” and provide a thoughtful reason for saying no.  Practicing If-Then strategies is the easiest way to make self control a habit. 

But, crafting an effective If-Then strategy requires thoughtful tact.  First, track and analyze situations where you’ve lost control and succumbed to temptation.  Second, look for times when you persevered in challenging situations and tease out the causative link between cognitive behavior and effective self-control.  The first step gives you your “If”; the second, your “Then”. 

Self-Distancing – Stepping Out of The Self 

Our typically self-immersed way of thinking has a tendency to perpetuate vicious and virtuous cycles.  The vicious cycle takes the form of:

Increased stress - hot system dominance - negative emotion - long-term distress - deepening depression - loss of control - chronic stress - increasingly toxic psychological and physiological consequences - increased stress - repeat

Stepping out of ourselves by imagining ourselves as a fly on the wall instead of the thinker of our thoughts lets us break these vicious cycles and replace them with a virtuous one.  An easy way to break out of self-immersion is to imagine the situation you find yourself in as happening in someone else.  Going a step further by imagining your situation unfolding in the life of “the person you want to be” and imagining how the ideal version of yourself would deal with the situation allows you to make sense of the situation, gain closure, and proceed accordingly. 

Mastering The Marshmallow Test - Executive Function

  • Remembering and actively keeping in mind the contingency (consequences)
  • Monitoring progress towards the goal and adjusting accordingly
  • Inhibiting impulsive responses

Our ancestors developed executive function to enable the sociality of our species.  Executive function is the result of a developed “Theory of Mind”.  Humans can grasp the minds of others more effectively than any other animal.  We possess the cognitive skills to analyze a situation and speculate as to what it’s like to be another person.  These cognitive skills are complimented by the presence of “mirror neurons” that allow us to understand a stranger’s psychological predicament not through conceptual reasoning but by direct simulation in our own physiologies.  Our ability to control ourselves was born out of the necessity to understand each other and work together.  In the modern world, our executive functions serve the same exact purposes as they used, they're simply disguised by the quirks of modernity.


The Roots of Self Control – The First Six Years of Life

Our current ability to direct our attention and control our behaviors depends on the nature of the situation in which we were first called upon to use these skills.  In the first two years of life, these skills are called upon during times of separation.  How safe we felt as infants and toddlers when we were away from our caretakers determines how and why we started to control and direct our attention. Early emotional experiences are embedded in the architecture of our brains and have huge consequences for how our lives unfold.   

Dysfunction develops when feelings of discomfort were dominant in these early experiences of separation.  When the child’s attention is directed by fear and feelings of abandonment, this narrow pattern of cognitive behavior dominates and reinforces itself over time

Seperation Anxiety

On the other hand, the roots of healthy cognitive control are found in the trusting relationship between infant and caretaker.  When the toddler is left alone and is sure the caretaker will return, the toddler is free to shift their attention from feelings of distress towards things and activities that interest them.   The ability to intentionally direct attention in the external environment becomes internalized.  By the age of three, the child begins to exert control over their thoughts, feelings and actions.  This skill becomes increasingly visible with age. 

How the set of cognitive skills that we call “self-control” develops depends on the initial environment that the skills were used in, and the momentum that was built by the subsequent presence or absence of these environments.    


From "Nature vs. Nurture" to "Nature and Nurture"

“For centuries, the argument about genetic versus environmental influences on the brain and behavior has raged for virtually every important human characteristic, from the origins of intelligence, aptitudes, and abilities; to aggression, altruism, conscientiousness, criminality, willpower, and political beliefs; to schizophrenia, depression, and longevity” 

Are we a blank slate to be shaped by our environment or do our genes prescribe what we become?

Cutting edge genetic research is beginning to invert the previous belief about gene-environment relationships. 

“Environments can be as deterministic as we once believed genes could be, and the genome can be as malleable as we once believed only environments could be.”

The fact of the matter is that what we become reflects the interplay of genetic and environmental influences in an “enormously complex choreography”.  We are forever nestled between forces of nature and forces of nurture.  Our genes influence how we deal with the environment and the environment influences the expression of our genes.  Our environment shapes what we do and what we do shapes our environment.  The influences are always mutual; it’s time to get over the nature v. nurture question.  Asking, “how much is nature or nurture to blame” is like asking “What’s the more important determinant of rectangles size: its length or its width?” Length and width need each other for a rectangle to exist.  Nature and nurture are the same way.


A Healthy Conception of What We Are    

Human nature is neither fixed at birth nor completely malleable.  The implicit dependence of “nature on nurture” and “nurture on nature” reveals a brilliantly counterintuitive picture of what it takes to achieve our goals and become who we want to be.  It’s impossible to change yourself or achieve something new without a collision between nature and nurture.  If nature is the clay and nurture is its mold, we are neither the clay nor the mold, but simply the points of contact between mold and clay.  We are neither the shaper nor the shaped, but the process of shaping. 

Oftentimes it feels like we’re the clay.  It feels like we can shape ourselves with our own hands.  However, our hands are made of clay and aren’t strong enough to change what we are.  We can only shape ourselves by colliding with the environment – our mold.  The mold is the entirety of our influences.  It’s our family, the schools we went to, the sports we played, the love we’ve found, the love we’ve lost, the things we do, and the things we don’t.  We are nothing more and nothing less than our responses to the collisions between mold and clay.  To change ourselves, we must change how we see ourselves and act accordingly.  We must only worry about our reactions to the collisions, not the collisions themselves

If you want to change what you are, you have to change the way you think.  Descartes was onto something when he said, “I think, therefore I am.”  But Walter Mischel goes a step farther to say, “I think, therefore I can change what I am”

If, while reading, you found yourself asking “But can I really change?” The answer to your question lies is the same as your answer to the following question: “Would you like to?”