The Marshmallow Test
Author: Walter Mischel
This book about willpower is written by perhaps the foremost psychologist in the field of self-control. The title of the book refers to the famous and frequently cited Standford Marshmallow experiment, and its longitudinal follow up studies. These investigated the methods pre-school children use to delay gratification, and they established how this ability influenced the life outcomes of participants as adolescents and as adults. The book stressed the importance of self-control, emphasising that it has ‘profound long-term consequences for people’s welfare and mental and physical health over a life span’ (page 3). Using the studies as a backdrop, the book reviews the nature of temptations, particularly their power to make intelligent people behave stupidly and irrationally, thereby ‘managing to unravel the lives they diligently constructed?’ (pages 98 and 205). The major focus of the book is on the determinants and benefits of self-control, and the strategies which effectively boost willpower.
Perhaps the most important result of the Marshmallow study, and other related experiments, is the clear demonstration that children who can delay gratification, using diverse distraction strategies, attain better educational and health outcomes; as adolescents, they are more resistant to temptation, less distractible, more intelligent, and more confident, and in later life they suffer less from addictions and obesity (pages 5 and 23). These findings underly the author’s assertion that self-control is ‘crucial for the successful pursuit of long-term goals‘, and ‘essential for developing…mutually supportive relationships‘ (page 6). The studies also revealed the factors which may adversely affect the ability to self-control such as depression, prolonged stress, and having over-controlling mothers (pages 35, 49-50, and 58). Interestingly, hubris is another factor that frequently blunts self-control, and the book illustrated this with many high profile cases, for example the adulterous affair of US General David Petraeus when he was the head of the CIA (page 181).
A major part of the book is dedicated to how children attain self-control. Asserting that the ability to delay gratification is an acquired skill, the author discussed the diverse developmental factors that entrench willpower (page 3). He particularly examined the role of parenting, arguing that infants who are nurtured ‘lovingly and caringly‘ grow up better able to use distraction strategies to sustain delayed gratification (page 54). He also argued that positive childhood experiences promote the development of various aspects of self control, such as ‘the ability to regulate impulses, exercise self-restraint, control the expression of emotions, and develop empathy, mindfulness, and conscience‘ (page 57). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the author revealed that girls were better at delaying gratification than boys (page 47).
The key helpful strength of the book is the review of the strategies that help people to enhance their self-control and resist temptation. The author states that these cognitive and emotional skills, which can be ‘learned, enhanced, and harnessed‘, work by transforming how people mentally appraise the object of temptation (pages 36 and 230). The core skill he advocates is of psychological distance, a strategy that is anchored on shifting focus from short-term benefits to long-term rewards and consequences of actions (pages 132-135). The author explained that, by making temptation distant and abstract, the strategy ‘cools the present‘; at the same time, by making the consequences of poor self-control ‘imminent and vivid‘, the strategy ‘heats the future‘ (pages 255 and 146). The author stressed that psychological distance works best if it is made automatic and habitual by constant rehearsal, thereby ‘taking the effort out of effortful control‘ (pages 257-258). The book proposed many other strategies to fend off temptation such as pre-commitments, cognitive reappraisal, and self-distancing (page 48).
The scope of the book is quite extensive, and the author referred to many related psychological concepts. For example, it described executive function, the ‘cool system‘ behind self-control, as consisting of skills which enable people to control their ‘thoughts, impulses, actions, and emotions‘ (page 107). The author goes further to explore how executive function sets and monitors progress towards goals, without which ‘it becomes impossible to control emotions appropriately and inhibit interfering impulsive responses’ (page 108). Other relevant concepts the book explored include theory of mind, mastery, optimism and pessimism, rejection sensitivity, the psychological immune system, the consistency paradox, context-dependent behaviour, and the Flynn effect, the tendency for IQ to increase from one generation to the next (pages 91-121, 158, 169, 171-121, and 191-193).
The research base for the book is quite impressive, and the author cited many other experts in the field of self-control. These include psychologists Carol Dweck on mindfulness, Roy Baumeister on will fatigue, and B.F. Skinner on behaviourism. Other experts the book referred to include linguist Noam Chomsky, child development expert Elizabeth Spelke, genetics specialist Frances Champagne, shyness expert Jerome Kagan, mirror neurons discoverer Giacomo Rizzolatti, and Daniel Berlyne on the arousing qualities of tempting stimuli (pages 34, 81-88, 110-113, and 217-218). The author also illustrated his arguments with reference to works of fiction. For example, he referred to The Odyssey to demonstrate the strategy of advanced planning; in this Greek mythology, the legendary hero Odysseus instructed his sailors to bind him so that he could resist the temptation of the sirens, creatures whose songs drive men to madness (page 61).
This book addresses a fundamental factor in our personal and professional lives. It highlights a universal vulnerability to temptations, discusses the factors that determine self-control, and recommends measures to enhance willpower. Significantly, the author makes many helpful recommendations with relevance to public policy on education, parenting and healthcare. Whilst the book explores the environmental determinants of self-control in detail, it made little reference to the genetic determinants of willpower. This oversight in favour of a strictly behaviouralist approach therefore limits the scope of the strategies the book advocates. Nevertheless, the consequences of poor self-control the author explores are relevant to health care, and the emphasis on harmful health-related behaviours such as smoking is very helpful.
The book is written by a psychologist who has played a defining role in the field of self-control. His elucidation of the topic is clear, and the subject is very relevant to health care. The focus is almost entirely behavioural, but this does not detract from the relevance of the lessons the author imparts. I highly recommend the book to all doctors.
Publisher, Place, Date: Corgi Books, London, 2014
Number of Chapters: 20
Number of Pages: 326
Star rating: 5