Self-control. Whether it’s getting to the gym, sticking to that diet, quitting smoking or keeping our tempers under wraps at work, most of us wish we had more of it. And certainly as parents we want our children to have the ability to practice self-control, set goals and be resilient in the face of failure.
Renowned psychologist Walter Mischel began studying this issue back in the 1960s in a series of experiments now famously known as “the marshmallow test.” Left alone in a room with three marshmallows, a child who rang a bell and asked the researcher to return would get to eat one marshmallow. But if the child waited on a chair until the researcher returned without being summoned, the reward was two marshmallows.
Mischel and his students later videotaped the children, and later still, tracked some of the original preschoolers, now in their 40s, in a follow-up study. The results, like Mischel’s new book, The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control, are fascinating and revealing. Those preschoolers who were able to delay gratification had attained higher educational levels, were less likely to be addicted and had lower body-mass indices as adults.
Now, before you begin panicking that your child who can’t wait a moment for a cookie is doomed to lifelong failure, take heart. How our brains work, as Mischel clearly demonstrates, is not so simple.
What makes The Marshmallow Test so remarkable is not simply this great psychologist’s ability to mine years of complex research to provide simple strategies anyone can use (such as setting up and practicing IF/THEN scenarios: IF the alarm goes off at 7 a.m., THEN I will exercise). More, it is Mischel’s compassion and commitment to making life better for individuals and society which shine through. Reading The Marshmallow Test is a little like sitting in a lecture hall listening to a brilliant researcher, and leaving inspired to lead a better life. Or at least to get to the gym the next morning.