“The Marshmallow Test”: What’s the Real Lesson?

 Whether you eat the marshmallow at age 5 isn’t your destiny. Self-control can be taught. Pamela Druckerman, New York Times, about The Marshmallow Test

Walter Mischel says the key to success is the patience to delay gratification. Oh…I want some delayed gratification now! Stephen Colbert

In advance of the publication of psychologist Walter Mischel‘s The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control, the Pamela Druckerman has explained his central theme: We can overcome our childhood tendencies to go for the quick marshmallow (or alternative treat) rather than wait and get two.

In the legendary experiments that continue today but started back in the 1960’s, “(t)he children who succeed turn their backs on the cookie, push it away, pretend it’s something nonedible like a piece of wood, or invent a song. Instead of staring down the cookie, they transform it into something with less of a throbbing pull on them.” Adults (and other kids) can learn this type of self-control too.

It’s all in the way our brains work, of course. In brief, the prefrontal cortex has to be called more into play.

It’s also in the making of if-then (or prior contingency) plans. How this applies to kids is explained by Mischel (Education Week):

…(W)ith practice, the desired action becomes triggered automatically when the ‘if’ cue occurs: If I have an assignment to complete, then I will turn off my text messages until I am done; if the dessert tray arrives then I will order the fruit salad; if I get angry then I will take a deep breath and count backward from 10 before I act; if I get teased at school, then I will pretend I don’t hear and walk away; if I am about to start daydreaming then I will look right at the teacher and pay attention. It’s simple but effective, and with practice can become routine.

Selected Quotes

Self-control is crucial for the successful pursuit of long-term goals. It is equally essential for developing the self-restraint and empathy needed to build caring and mutually supportive relationships.

What we do, and how well we control our attention in the service of our goals, becomes part of the environment that we help create and that in turn influences us. This mutual influence shapes who and what we become, from our physical and mental health to the quality and length of our life.

Who we are and what we become reflects the interplay of both genetic and environmental influences in an enormously complex choreography. It is time to put away the “How much?” question because it cannot be answered simply. As the Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb noted long ago, it’s like asking, “What’s the more important determinant of a rectangle’s size: its length or its width?”

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