Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control by Walter Mischel

You’ve heard of the Marshmallow Test. A child is presented with a desirable treat and given a choice – eat one now, or wait a bit and get two later. Versions of this test have been in use for over 50 years. In his book The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control, Walter Mischel talks about the test and also about its implications for behavior later in life.

The ability to delay gratification, it turns out, is critical for a successful life, and reading this book made me think about my own behavior, goals, and self-control. It’s not a fast read but contains thought-provoking statements like this:

To resist a temptation we have to cool it, distance it from the self, and make it abstract. To take the future into account, we have to heat it, make it imminent and vivid. To plan for the future, it helps to pre-live it at least briefly, to imagine the alternative possible scenarios as if they were unfolding in the present. This allows us to anticipate the consequences of our choices, letting ourselves both feel hot and think cool. And then hope for the best. (p. 108 in the ebook)

And this:

The traditional belief that willpower is an inborn trait that you either have a lot of or you don’t (but cannot do much about it either way) is false. Instead, self-control skills, both cognitive and emotional, can be learned, enhanced, and harnessed so that they become automatically activated when you need them. (p. 171 in the ebook)

I am not a scientist, and some of the text was a little too scientific for me. But there are plenty of fascinating stories about the techniques kids use to resist the treats to balance things out a bit. The text seems very well researched. I wasn’t riveted, but I found The Marshmallow Test well worth reading. I recommend it for fans of Freakonomics, Mindless Eating, Stuff, and Quiet.

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