the marshmallow test walter mischel

The Marshmallow Test by Walter Mischel


In The Marshmallow Test, Walter Mischel explores the topic of self control. He breaks down the cognitive skills involved; the necessary motivations; as well as the long-term consequences of using willpower in everyday decisions. The title of the book comes from his own research carried out at Stanford University. Essentially, preschool children were given the choice between ‘one marshmallow now’ or ‘two later’.

Intrigued by the correlation between the child’s choice and certain characteristics of their later lives, Dr Mischel poured into the topic in an attempt to understand the mechanisms behind self-control and how to master it. He found that children who were able to wait for the larger reward went on to enjoy greater success in a variety of areas, particularly in academic and social performance.

Although the initial tests have been subject to criticism, The Marshmallow Test provides a thorough look into how our willpower works. Dr Mischel draws on over a decades research, personal anecdotes, and stories from his study participants. In the book, he provides several strategies one can use to improve their discipline, as well as key insights into how our childhood affects our lives down the road.

Key Insights

Our Brains are Malleable

Throughout the book, Dr Mischel expands on an ever-growing body of research which suggests that the human brain is far more malleable than once previously thought. He writes, “By changing how we think, we can then change what we feel, do and become.”

He does not discard the significance of inherited, biological factors but he also notes a crucial point in saying “The environment affects which parts of our DNA are expressed and which are ignored.”

To expand on this notion, Dr Mischel writes that willpower is not an inborn trait and that one can learn and enhance their ability with time and effort. With this, he advocates the adoption of a ‘growth-oriented mindset’ and refers to a study done by Carol Dweck who pioneered the term.

Cool the Now

Self-control can be understood as the ability to regulate emotions, thoughts and behaviours. Our ability to do this, as Dr Mischel points out, revolves around the interplay between the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex inside our brain; or, as they are referred to in the book, the ‘hot’ and ‘cool’ systems respectively.

The ‘hot system’, responsible for our most basic drives and emotions, focuses on immediate rewards and threats; whereas, the ‘cool system’, the most evolved region in our brain, is responsible for the highest-order cognitive abilities. What’s interesting is that the two areas have an inverse relationship, meaning that as brain activity rises in one, it decreases in the other.

In using cognitive skills to exert self control, we shift our activity from the instinctive and emotional hot system to the slower and more rational cool system. The term ‘executive function’ is used throughout the book to refer to these sets of skills. Dr Mischel notes a few ways to enhance the executive function, such as meditation, physical exercise and anything to minimize loneliness. 

He summarises the core strategy for self-control as the ability to “cool” the now and heat the “later”. By this, he means making present temptations less tempting by making longer-term objectives or consequences more visceral and hence harder to ignore.

Contextual Behaviours

Our ability to use self-control skills is based, in any situation, around three primary considerations:

  1. Our perception of the situation and the probable consequences
  2. Our motivation and goals
  3. The intensity of the temptation

Thus, our self-control is contextual by nature. This means that, though we may be able to exert willpower or discipline in one area of our life, we may not in another. Our behaviour is context-dependent.

Specific Strategies

If-Then Implementation Plans

The idea behind ‘if-then plans’ is pretty straightforward. Essentially by preparing a response to a trigger (or cue) ahead of time, you can gradually make it a habit. Once habitual, it becomes automatic and hence requires little to no effort. The cue can either be in the external environment (e.g. an alarm ringing) or from an internal state (e.g. a food craving). An example may be “if I am craving chocolate, then I will eat an apple.” The challenge is to rehearse and repeat this new behaviour until it becomes an ingrained routine.

One important thing to note is that ‘if-then plans’ already characterise our behaviour. They are just, more often than not, unconscious. The first step in changing ‘if-then plans’ is thus to identify the trigger to the response that you wish to control. This can be difficult as it often requires a sharp sense of self-awareness but, like anything else, can be practiced and improved. Dr Mischel suggests using a journal to make note of the trigger as soon as it occurs. The idea here is that it can be easier to recognise what the trigger actually is when it has been cued just moments ago.

Psychological Distancing

Psychological distancing is a method that can be used specifically to ‘cool’ the ‘hot system’ and tap into the prefrontal cortex. The idea is to create distance between yourself and your feelings, so you can be less emotional and more logical with your behaviour. Dr Mischel explains how by taking the perspective of a ‘fly on the wall’, we can explore different ways of thinking or viewing an experience. He observed in his studies that people who took a ‘self-distanced’ perspective were able to reappraise a situation rather than simply recount it as it was processed in the moment. This allowed them to find a new and more productive response.

Closing Thoughts

Overall, The Marshmallow Test is an interesting read. The book is less of a self-help manual and more of a practical overview on the subject, following Dr Mischel’s years of research and expertise in the area. He clearly explains how self-control is an essential ingredient in the recipe for success, but additionally, dispels a variety of myths surrounding the topic.