My Favorite Six Excerpts from The Marshmallow Test
Delaying immediate gratification is an acquirable cognitive skill
The Marshmallow Test conducted originally by Stanford Professor of Psychology, Walter Mischel, is one of the most famous experiments on delayed gratification. His premise was that “the ability to delay immediate gratification for the sake of future consequences is an acquirable cognitive skill.”
This experiment has been replicated many times throughout decades and across country lines. Perhaps, one of the most interesting aspects of the Marshmallow Test was interviewing the test subjects forty years later and to assess their 40-year old behavior versus their childhood behavior.
There are a plethora of articles written about the Marshmallow Test that attempt to make sense out of the experiment by applying its meaning to current times. Instead of interpreting the experiment, I share with you some of my favorite excerpts from the book, The Marshmallow Test, written by Mr. Mischel. The excerpts below are taken directly from the book with some adjustments made for context.
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What is the Marshmallow Test?
It began in the 1960s with preschoolers at Stanford University’s Bing Nursery School, in a simple study that challenged them with a tough dilemma. My students and I gave the children a choice between one reward (for example, a marshmallow) that they could have immediately, and a larger reward (two marshmallows) for which they would have to wait, alone, for up to 20 minutes.
For example, “Amy” sat alone at a table facing the one marshmallow that she could have immediately, as well as the two marshmallows that she could have if she waited. Next to the treats was a desk bell she could ring at any time to call back the researcher and eat the one marshmallow. Or she could wait for the researcher to return, and if Amy hadn’t left her chair or started to eat the marshmallow, she could have both.
The struggles we observed as these children tried to restrain themselves from ringing the bell could bring tears to your eyes, have you applauding their creativeness and cheering them on, and give you fresh hope for the potential of even young children to resist temptation and persevere for their delayed rewards.
What the preschoolers did as they tried to keep waiting, and how they did or didn’t manage to delay gratification, unexpectedly turned out to predict much about their future lives. The more seconds they waited at age four or five, the higher their college-admission SAT scores and the better their rated social and cognitive functioning in adolescence. At age 27-32, those who had waited longer during the Marshmallow Test in pre-school had a lower body mass index and a better sense of self-worth, pursued their goals more effectively, and coped more adaptively with frustration and stress. At midlife, those who could consistently wait (“high delay”), versus those who couldn’t (“low delay”), were characterized by distinctively different brain scans in areas linked to additions and obesity.
Hot and Cold Systems
The limbic system consists of primitive brain structures located under the cortex on top of the brain stem, which developed early in our evolution. These structures regulate basic drives and emotions essential for survival, from fear and anger to hunger and sex. It (limbic system) remains our emotionally hot Go! system, specialized for quick reactions to strong, emotion-arousing stimuli that automatically trigger pleasure, pain, and fear.
Closely interconnected with the brain’s hot system is its cool system, which is cognitive, complex, reflective, and slower to activate. It is centered primarily in the prefrontal cortex (PFC). This cool, controlled system is crucial for future-oriented decisions and self-control efforts of the kind identified in the Marshmallow Test. It’s important to note that high stress attenuates the cool system and accentuates the hot system. The hot and cool systems continuously and seamlessly interact in a reciprocal relationship: as one becomes more active the other becomes less active.
As I described in earlier pages, successful delayers in the Marshmallow Test invented ways to strategically distract themselves from the tempting treats and the bell. They also focused on the cool, abstract, informational features of the temptations as they imagined them (the marshmallows are like puffy clouds, or cotton balls), and avoided or transformed their hot features to cool them down (make believe it’s just a picture; it’s got a frame around it; you can’t eat a picture). The diverse cognitive skills they used to wait for their treats are prototypes for those they needed years later to study for high school exams rather than heading out to the movies with friends, or countless other immediate temptations that awaited them in life.
The Executive Function
Each child who waited successfully had a distinctive methodology for self-control, but they all shared three features of executive function (EF): First, they had to remember and actively keep in mind their chosen goal and the contingency (“If I eat the one now, I don’t get the two later.”) Second, they had to monitor their progress toward their goal and make the necessary corrections by shifting their attention and cognitions flexibly between goal-oriented thoughts and temptation-reducing techniques. Third, they had to inhibit impulsive responses — like thinking about how appealing the temptations were or reaching out to touch them — that would prevent them from attaining their goal. Cognitive scientists can now see these three processes play out in the brain when people who try to resist temptations are imaged in the fMRI scanners, revealing the attention-control network in the prefrontal cortex that enables these remarkable human feats.
Optimists vs Pessimists
Martin Seligman has led much of the research on optimistic versus pessimistic explanatory styles. He proposed that optimists differ from pessimists in how they perceive and explain their success and failure. When optimists fail, they think they can succeed the next time if they change their behavior or the situation appropriately. They use a rejection experience, failed job application, bad investment, or poor test result to figure out what they need to do to improve their chances on the next attempt.
While the optimists deal with failure constructively, the pessimists use the same experience to confirm their gloomy expectations, believing it’s their fault, and they try to avoid thinking about it, assuming there is nothing they can do.
Imagine Your Future Self
Would calling attention to the self they would become in the future influence the present self to share current income? Indeed, those who saw their future self indicated that they would have save 30 percent more relative to those who saw their current self.
The idea guiding this research is that the more emotionally connected you become to your future self, the more you will incorporate it into your present self-conception and budget, ready to share more generously from what you currently give yourself to what you allocate to yourself in the future. Hal Herschfield and other researchers are continuing to explore whether savings for later years, not just in hypothetical lab situations but in real life — specifically 401(k) retirement plans — might be substantially increased by enhancing the saver’s identification with the future self.