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Self Control and Marshmallows

September 29, 2014

Walter Mischel, professor of psychology at Columbia, invented the “marshmallow test” on self-control nearly 50 years ago. In the test, a succession of 5-year-olds sit at a table with a marshmallow. If they can resist eating it for 15 minutes they get two as a reward.

Famously, the progress of these children was tracked as they grew up and it was found that those who had waited longest for the marshmallow went on to have the highest SAT (academic)scores, earned more advanced degrees and had fewer problematic issues with food, drink, drugs and stress in general.

However, in his new book “The Marshmallow Test: Understanding Self-control and How to Master It” (Mischel W., pub. Bantam, 2014 ), Mischel explores a simple but critical idea that was not clarified by the original experiment and findings – that self-control is not simply determined at age 5 but can be taught or developed at any age.


So what can help us to develop self-control or will power ?

In the original experiment, the children who successfully waited for 15 minutes either avoided looking at the marshmallow, pushed it away, pretended it was something they wouldn’t or couldn’t eat, invented a song to distract themselves or fell asleep. These are actually examples of psychological techniques that we might refer to as ‘re-framing’, ‘distancing’ or ‘down regulating.’ These approaches represent constructive life skills that can be taught, learned and practised and are obviously not the same as just avoiding a situation that must be addressed.

As many theorists have observed, how we think, feel and behave are all highly interconnected. While this idea is simple in principle, skillful method is required in action.

Over several decades I have reviewed many different approaches to self development and have found that all the significant schools, from Eastern spirituality and meditation to Western psychotherapy and neuroscience, offer their own particular insights. However, one of the teachings that receives general agreement is the idea that sustained self-control, will power and focus are developed through commitment to self enquiry, health, balance and a genuine sense of compassionate purpose. It’s not enough to just want to change.


Through dedicated effort and an understanding of the sub-conscious we can often arrive at new, sometimes surprising ways of experiencing the world. As the doctors note in the science fiction comedy ‘Sleeper’ (1973) while discussing Woody Allen’s behaviour as he finds himself gradually waking up to a new life many years in the future:

Dr. Melik: This morning for breakfast he requested something called “wheat germ, organic honey and tiger’s milk.”
Dr. Aragon: [chuckling] Oh, yes. Those are the charmed substances that some years ago were thought to contain life-preserving properties.
Dr. Melik: You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or… hot fudge?
Dr. Aragon: Those were thought to be unhealthy… precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.
Dr. Melik: Incredible.


Spencer Joseph




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