“The power is not in the stimulus itself, however, but in how it’s mentally appraised: if you change how you think about it, its impact on what you feel and do changes.”
Walter Mischel is the originator of the delayed gratification experiments that have come to be popularly known as the Marshmallow Test (even though the treat is question was not always a marshmallow). He began studying the ability of children to delay immediate gratification in exchange for a later, larger reward at Stanford’s Bing Nursery School in the 1960s. Initially, Mischel was trying to understand what enabled some people to delay, while others could not wait. But because his own daughters attended the school, he would hear about their former nursery school peers from time to time, and he noticed that there appeared to be a correlation between their success on the test, and their later achievements. He instituted longitudinal tests in order to determine if his informal observations had any validity. The correlation held up in laboratory tests, and Mischel subsequently dedicated his career to understanding the relationship between self-control and success in other endeavours.
The Marshmallow Test has had a variety of marketing-oriented subtitles in its various editions, including “Mastering Self-Control,” “Understanding Self-Control and How to Master It”, “Self-Control Demystified,” and “Why Self-Control is the Engine of Success.” But while Mischel does elucidate the strategies that allow those with strong self-control to delay immediate gratification, only a small portion of the book is dedicated to the application of these strategies to the life of the reader. Marketing aside, Mischel is more concerned with scientific questions, such as what other factors—besides executive function—are important to self-control? Is this trait a product of nature or nurture, and is it malleable or fixed?
Mischel is concerned with these questions because they add nuance to a test that has been greatly oversimplified in the popular imagination. While it is true that a significant correlation has been found between successfully delaying gratification on the marshmallow test and later success in life, it is by no means a fixed relationship. For example, Mischel found that trust was extremely significant for an accurate test; if the child did not trust that the researcher would actually provide the second treat, they had no incentive to delay. Emotional states are also important; if you are feeling sad or bad, it is more difficult to resist something that will offer some immediate gratification. These two factors could easily change from one test to another with the same subject, and must be controlled for. In order to further test his findings, Mischel also ventured out from the rarified sample of the initial Stanford study, and took the marshmallow test to the South Bronx in order to check if his findings held up across racial and socioeconomic lines.
Thanks to the marshmallow test, Mischel is an oft-consulted figure, a media favourite when it comes time to ask for an expert to opine on why an otherwise seemingly trustworthy public figure would sleep with an intern, or hire a prostitute. People seem to believe that self-control is a fixed characteristic that will remain steady across all situations, but Mischel’s studies have shown that someone may have iron-clad self-control when it comes to resisting the temptation to slack off at work, but at the same time be completely unable to stick to a diet. Motivations and consequences can be a significant factor. However, I think Mischel is overly quick to dismiss Roy Baumeister’s research on the finitude of willpower. It has been amply demonstrated that being tired, sad, or hungry can cause your self-control to become depleted more quickly, even in an area in which you are normally very disciplined.
Mischel explains his subject clearly, but does not tend to oversimplify. Rather than pressing an explanation of either nature or nurture, he argues for a complex interaction between the two factors. He provides real cases as examples in order to illustrate a point, but does not conflate anecdotes with data. He carefully accounts for variables, as is evidenced by the many factors he has found and manipulated, in order to account for how they might impact a trial. Race, class, emotional state, and even how the subjects are prepared by researchers have all been carefully checked. The chapters are well annotated, and the book is thoroughly indexed. All of this points towards the fact that this is a work by an academic, albeit one intended to be accessible to a general audience. Despite the marketing, it is not a self-help book, and I think most who are disappointed with The Marshmallow Test will find that it is because they were led to expect something else.
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