By Hilary Levey Friedman
I have a favorite kind of parenting book (some of which appear on my recent Top 10 list): It’s a book that doesn’t live in the Parents section of the bookstore. I like the books that help us learn not just about childhood and families, but about how we can all, regardless of our ages, live better. Walter Mischel’s recently released The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control resides in the Psychology section of your bookstore, but it belongs on your parenthood shelf.
You have probably heard of the “marshmallow experiment.” The simplest version is that you take a preschooler into an empty room and present her with a marshmallow. You tell the preschooler that she can choose to eat the one marshmallow now, or earn two marshmallows if she waits while the adult is out of the room for an unspecified amount of time. Preschoolers who can wait at age 4 have higher SAT scores in high school, lower BMI in their 30s, and are generally happier. It’s considered one of the best predictors of future life success among all social science research.
When Mischel started his research on self-control in the 1960s as a professor at Stanford University (at the nursery school his three daughters attended) the experiment didn’t have a catchy title. In fact, it had the cumbersome name “The preschool self-imposed delay of immediate gratification for the sake of delayed but more valued rewards paradigm.” David Brooks popularized the work in a New York Times column, dubbing it the “marshmallow experiment” in 2006. While marshmallows weren’t the only rewards used (kids could select from a number of options including cookies and M&Ms), the name stuck.
In The Marshmallow Test Mischel pulls together the findings from over five decades of research on self-control and delayed gratification while offering practical advice about how we can cultivate self-control in ourselves and in children. According to him, “The ability to delay immediate gratification for the sake of future consequences is an acquirable cognitive skill.”
Mischel and other researchers have found that kids wait longer when the reward is covered (ten times longer!), when they are primed with fun thoughts (three times longer than sad thoughts), and when they are shown an image of the reward instead of the actual reward (also three times longer). To delay kids displayed a variety of techniques including averting their gazes, whispering to themselves, reaffirming intention to wait aloud, making up a song, picking noses, and some simply slept. Another technique the researchers found to help delay gratification is imagining how someone else—like a smart child—might behave.
The book is divided into three parts; Part I describes the experiments with preschoolers and the strategies they develop to control themselves, Part II shows these same strategies can help adults, and Part III applies the findings to public policy. If I had to pick a few chapters I highly recommend Chapter 3 in Part I, “Thinking Hot and Cool,” which discusses our brain systems in a remarkably clear way and Chapter 13 in Part II, “The Psychological Immune System.”
The Marshmallow Test is very comprehensive when it comes to discussing self-control. For instance, at one point I asked myself, “I wonder if boys and girls behave differently while waiting for the marshmallow?” And, then, he tells you on pages 47-8 that girls usually wait longer than boys and their strategies may differ, with boys using physical strategies like rocking or pushing temptations away while girls seem to sing or tune out (note that when rewards were only imagined girls delayed longer, but once it became a real choice the differences between boys’ and girls’ wait time went away). I also started wondering about the role of genetics—turns out that is what Chapter 7 is all about (not surprisingly it’s neither genes nor environment but a mix of both and Mischel mounts a compelling case that the nature vs. nurture debate isn’t very fruitful for anyone).
The writing in The Marshmallow Test is crisp, clear, and engaging. Mischel shares anecdotes about himself (like a cigarette addiction and a struggle with celiac disease), which adds a richness to the book. He also shares a joy in his work and a true respect for children captured in this sentence, “By the time they reach their fifth birthday, their minds have become wonderfully sophisticated.”
My biggest complaint is that we don’t always know a lot about how many participants there were in each experiment, and over time, and how representative they may be. Children who attend a preschool at Stanford are likely different from children on the South Side of Chicago. He does reveal that more than 550 kids took the marshmallow test from 1968-74, and that follow-up surveys began in 1982, but we have no sense of how many responded. The book is well annotated, but without notes on the page it can sometimes be tricky to find the desired reference.
As holiday season approaches considering buying your child a Cookie Monster—or at least the new version Mischel is helping to develop with Sesame Street Workshop who learns to wait for more cookies—or a copy for your child’s teachers, who play a key role in helping develop the skills children need to delay gratification and cultivate self-control.
Now, I wonder what it says about me that I had little self-control while reading The Marshmallow Test and couldn’t stop reading?
Hilary Levey Friedman, PhD is the Book Review Editor at Brain, Child and the author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture.