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About this week’s eSkeptic

Learning to control our impulses and delay immediate gratification may well be one of the most important things our species has ever learned. In this week’s eSkeptic, Michael Shermer reviews The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control by Walter Mischel (Little, Brown; September 23, 2014). Note: A shorter version of this review was originally published in the Wall Street Journal on September 19, 2014.

Michael Shermer is the publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and the author of the forthcoming book: The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom (January 20, 2015).

Willpower and Won’t Power

by Michael Shermer

When Admiral William H. McRaven’s 2014 commencement address at the University of Texas at Austin was posted online it went viral with millions of views. Its core message is summed up in his memorable line, “if you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.” The Navy SEAL veteran recalled that “if you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter. If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right. And, if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is made—that you made—and a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better.”

Admiral McRaven’s “life lessons” in his speech are, in fact, variations on a theme examined by the legendary psychologist Walter Mischel in his book The Marshmallow Test, because the key to being a successful Navy SEAL—or anything else in life—is summed up in the book’s subtitle: Mastering Self-Control. (Making your bed is a small form of mastery that establishes a pattern of self-control.) This fast-paced and engaging work is part memoir (Mischel recounts how he quit his three-pack a day smoking habit), part science (the extensive research on self-control is artfully summarized), and part self-help (a chapter provides handy tips for increasing your willpower).

Mischel begins by describing how he and his colleagues devised a straightforward way to measure self-control at the Bing Nursery School at Stanford University in the late 1960s. In its simplest form children ages 4–6 were given a choice between one marshmallow now or two marshmallows 15 minutes later. Some kids ate the marshmallow right away, but most engaged in unintentionally hilarious examples (viewed through a one-way mirror) of how to overcome temptation. They averted their gaze, covered their eyes, squirmed in their seats or sang to themselves. They made grimacing faces, tugged at their ponytails, picked up the marshmallow and pretended to take a bite. They sniffed it, pushed it away from them, covered it up. If paired with a partner, they engaged in dialogue about how they could work together to reach the goal of doubling their pleasure. About a third of the original subjects, the researchers reported, deferred gratification long enough to get the second treat. View numerous examples of the popular Standford marshmallow experiments in this YouTube playlist:

I first learned of this research in a psychology graduate program in the 1970s, shortly after the original papers were published. At that time, the work was characterized as a study of “delay of gratification,” and there was not much fanfare surrounding the experiments. All that changed in 2006, when Mr. Mischel published a new paper in the prestigious journal Psychological Science. The researchers had done a follow-up study with the students they had tested 40 years before, examining the sort of adults they had grown into. They found that the children who were able to delay gratification had higher SAT scores entering college, higher grade-point averages at the end of college and made more money after college. Perhaps not surprisingly, they also tended to have a lower body-mass index.

Suddenly people started paying attention. New York Times columnist David Brooks considered the implications in a piece called “Marshmallows and Public Policy.” “Sesame Street” featured Cookie Monster controlling his impulses to indulge, so that he could become a member of the Cookie Connoisseurs Club. Investment companies used the marshmallow metaphor to encourage potential clients to delay gratification and save for retirement. Some parents started buying their children T-shirts that said “Don’t Eat the Marshmallows” and “I Passed the Marshmallow Test.”

It was too much. No single variable—such as self-control—can explain success or failure. Some critics have pointed out that Mr. Mischel’s original subjects were themselves children of Stanford University professors and graduate students—not exactly a representative sample. Other scientists noted that variations in home environment could account for self-control differences: Stable homes and one-child families encourage delay of gratification, whereas in unstable homes and those with multiple siblings, if you don’t nab a marshmallow now there won’t be any left in 15 minutes.

Mr. Mischel addresses these critiques, noting that studies in nonelite schools found similar results, and he acknowledges the power of the environment to shape our ability to delay gratification. While observing that genetics plays a role, too, Mr. Mischel builds a case for how “self-control can be nurtured in children and adults, so that the prefrontal cortex can be used deliberately to activate the cool system and regulate the hot system.”

This metaphor of “hot” and “cool” systems in the brain—not dissimilar to psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s model of “fast” and “slow” thinking—is meant to convey how the brain evolved to handle different environments: “one hot to deal with immediate rewards and threats,” Mr. Mischel explains, “the other cool to deal with delayed consequences.” He describes the way they work together: “As one becomes more active, the other becomes less active. The challenge is to know when it’s best to let the hot system guide your course, and when (and how) to get the cool system to wake up.”

How do you cool your hot system? Physically distance yourself from temptation in both space and time: For example, clear your fridge of tempting treats you know you shouldn’t eat. Keep reminders around of the negative consequences of gaining weight (stretched clothes) and smoking (photographs of cancerous lungs). Get a full night’s sleep and eat a healthy diet to maintain the energy level you need—exercising willpower, researchers have found, burns a lot of actual calories. Pat yourself on the back for even the smallest triumphs of self-control (like making your bed). And don’t be afraid to enlist help. Surround yourself with friends or family members who understand or share your weaknesses, who will encourage you to resist temptation and reinforce your self-control mechanisms.

In his 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, the psychologist Steven Pinker attributed the decline of violence, in part, to the civilizing process between the late Middle Ages and the 20th century that taught people self-control through books of etiquette and manners. Pinker argues, in fact, that learning to control our impulses and delay immediate gratification may well be one of the most important things our species has ever learned. Still, as he also notes in his discussion of willpower and self-control, genetics may account for much of the differences in these studies, so we must be cautious not to overemphasize the environment in and instead take a realistic perspective and operate within those boundaries.

In one of Mischel’s experimental protocols children could ring a bell to call back the experimenter, such that not ringing the bell became another form of self-control. The Navy SEAL training camp had something similar, as Admiral McRaven explained in the final life lesson of his commencement address: “Finally, in SEAL training there is a bell. A brass bell that hangs in the center of the compound for all the students to see. All you have to do to quit—is ring the bell. Ring the bell and you no longer have to wake up at 5 o’clock. Ring the bell and you no longer have to do the freezing cold swims. Ring the bell and you no longer have to do the runs, the obstacle course, the PT—and you no longer have to endure the hardships of training. Just ring the bell. If you want to change the world don’t ever, ever ring the bell.”

But if you do, Mischel might say (echoing Scarlett O’Hara), tomorrow is another day. END

19 Comments »

19 Comments

  1. Oliver Saffir says:

    Interesting article. I finished a whole bag of potato chips while reading it.

    • RafaQuiM says:

      Hilarious and deep comment, I loved it. From it I could recall Sam Harris’ Free Will book: let´s accept it people we are simply complex or complex simple machines following inner rules. Rules created long long long time ago. Just enjoy chips, making beds, making love, loving killers, kill insects, ….

  2. Bob Pease says:

    “They found that the children who were able to delay gratification had higher SAT scores entering college, higher grade-point averages at the end of college and made more money after college. Perhaps not surprisingly, they also tended to have a lower body-mass index.”

    “children of Stanford University professors and graduate students—not exactly a representative sample”

    even if this HAD been a representative sample, the cause- and- effect relationship here is not established

    The Church of the Subgenius teaches that compulsion to do whatever you like right now is somewhat unSLACKFUL, but usually put down at a very young age by other folks who want to get their stuff first.

    Pope Bobby II
    69th Clench of the Stark Fist of Removal
    Reformed Church of the Subgenius

    • Alexander says:

      Weird that you mention that the cause and effect relationship had not been established then go on to mention what a church teaches. Does the church have any references to the studies that show the cause and effect relationship between children around folk who want to get their stuff first, and the compulsion of those children later in life to do what ever they like?

      • Pope Bobby II says:

        The Church of the Subgenius is a parody religion.
        Regardless, I find the tacit assumption that Churches are not
        are not capable of “REAL” logic to be peculiar, at best.

        Pope Bobby

      • Adhicom says:

        Sometimes human societies are stlbae and rational, sometimes they are not. Kids are brought up in both times, and need to be able to adapt to both. In stlbae times, it may be rational to accept promises for the future. In unstlbae times, it may not be. If Sean Carroll offered me, today, a choice between $ 4 now and $5 in 10 years, I might take the $5. If he made the same offer, today, to a child in Afghanistan, I would advise that kid to take the $4 and run.

    • Stella Mazikowski says:

      Wow, the Church of Subgenius is still around? I thought the world was supposed to end in ’97 or something…

      Did Jesus not make it back with the Xists to destroy us all, or did Bob just save the day?

    • Mohamed says:

      A psychiatrist is a phasiciyn who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders. I have a bachelor’s degree in the social services field. For several years, I have worked with children who have been diagnosed with mental disorders. It is upsetting to see children victimize at an early age and even more disturbing to see them as predators as early as 5 years of age, however knowing that I am doing my part to assist them in becoming functioning youths and adults is rewarding. The empathy, confidentiality and maturity of a medical assistant are definitely needed in this area. I enjoy establishing a rapport with these clients and helping them to find adequate coping skills to deal with their disorders, therefore I would like to work for a psychiatrist.I would not like to work for an emergency phasiciyn for several reasons. I will explain a few. Patients who come to the emergency center typically have serious injuries or trauma. I would not like to have my mind constantly focused on who is coming thru the door and how sever the prognosis is. Knowing myself, I know that would be my focus and I would not be very productive. Also, in the emergency room the staff has to be prepared for anything, I would prefer an area that focuses on a particular specialty. Most importantly, I do not wish to see excessive amounts of blood loss on a regular basis. Actually, not even a minimal amount of blood loss on a regular basis. Giving my opinion and thoughts about this specialty, I would not be an effective employee.

  3. Keith says:

    What about luck and it’s role, talent and an ability to constrain oneself may not be enough. The graveyard of the gifted and not so gifted to borrow Nassim Taleb term (The Black Swan) is large, unseen and neglected. I tend to agree. Learning to make your bed is all there is, make the most of that and damn the torpedoes.

  4. Bob Birchett says:

    I’m willing to bet any amount you name, that the ‘no wait’ children had a significant higher percentage of adults that had a problem with addictions.

    • Alex says:

      The little boy who waetid for the piece of chocolate was doing everything right. He was given permission to eat the chocolate as a reward for playing the game. Then, with that settled in his mind, and now on a new issue, he decided it would also be profitable to do some waiting for a while, to see if that promised second piece of chocolate was actually forthcoming. No where did I hear him being reminded of, or even introduced to, the consequences of eating the first piece before the man returns. He was acting in good faith, and his simplistic understanding of the words that the authoritative giant in the room was using, was misinterpreted as knowledge of the situation.

  5. Mike Sutton says:

    Citing this study without caveats smacks somewhat of pseudo-skepticism. Because
    we are not told whether the rerasearch measured whether grabbing the marshmallow as soon as it is offered might be the smarter move made by children coming from homes where parents regularly (or on a memorable occasion) break/broke their promises? What about the “bird in the hand” argument for such kids?

  6. Mike Sutton says:

    Opps that’ll teach me to avoid speed reading when in a hurry to shoot off my mouth. I was 100 % wrong and I admit it. It does deal with that very issue. Great stuff.

  7. Mike Sutton says:

    On a more careful reading, I would still note that simply comparing elite with non-elite schools does not rule out my first “shot from the hip” comment – above. Namely, it could be an individual unreliable-parent cause that they have not measured. “Mallow-grabbing” could be a variable that is substituting for poor/dishonest parenting (which happens as much in elite as non-elte households).

  8. Steve Doob says:

    Wonder if there were any kids who refused to eat any of the marshmallows, and if there were, how did they do as adults?

    • John says:

      I had a rather hard time conhsiog just one type of physician I would want to work for. So many of them fascinate me, and with me not really going into any medical field other than support, I never gave this any thought in the past. After reading the list, I am more favorable of working for a neonatologist. It is difficult to think about how neonatologist physicians sometimes have the most difficult job in the world, but I can only imagine how amazing it would be to be a part of saving a baby’s life. I had a coworker once whose baby was born at 36 weeks, and her baby had a lot of heart and lung problems. There were concerns about whether or not they would ever fully develop once she had him, but after many months in the NICU, and many scares that happened during it, the doctors were able to save him and he is now a very healthy 5 year old. It is because of that I have a higher interest in the neonatologist field.I hate to say which type of physician I would care less to work for, and it is because I worry that many will take it the wrong way. When I was 16, I used to help my mom at an assisted living home as a caregiver. We would get to work at 7:00 A.M. every morning to prepare breakfast for four of the elderly men and women that we were caring for. We would then make sure that all bedding was changed, rooms were cleaned, meals were prepared, and appointments were handled. We worked 12 hour days, and they were always grueling. The owner of the home made sure that everyone had their medicine and made it to their doctor appointments on time. However, she was more worried about getting paid for her services than actually helping the elderly. She would yell at them if they did something wrong, and even call them terrible names. My mom reported her and we both quit our job, but it has always left a sting in my heart since then. It is because of my experience with that situation that I do not think I could ever work for a gerontologist. I know that the situations would be much different, but ever since my experience with caring for elderly individuals it is very hard for me to think about assisting a physician in geriatrics because I worry that someone else might treat the elderly in the same way the owner of the home did. I am a firm believer that the elderly deserve the ultimate care and comfort when going through any treatment and aging in general, but I do not think I could ever work in that environment again.

  9. Patrick Stirling says:

    What struck me is how hard this is on the poor kids! 15min is a long time to stare at a marshmallow. Usually, delaying gratification would be “I’ll give you one marshmallow now, or I’ll put it in this drawer and come back in 15min with another”, avoiding the torture of having a marshmallow in front of you for 15 long minutes. It would then be interesting to see how many kids open the drawer and eat the marshmallow. It’s a question of setting up for success rather than failure.
    I wonder what happened in 15min when one kid ate hers and the other didn’t? Howls would ensue when he gets his 2nd marshmallow but she doesn’t!

    • Mike Sutton says:

      Patrick Stirling

      If that did happen (and we have no idea) it would be a very “bending over backwards to be honest” scientist who would record it and then seek to interpret its significance. How many such scientists fail to turn up to studies of this kind? Now there would be an interesting scientific study for a genuine skeptical community.

  10. Ana says:

    Diet-wise I could argue that savoring one marshmallow now showed more self control than waiting 15 minutes to stuff my face with two.

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