Speaking of the relationship between marshmallows and human psychology, you may have read Jonah Lehrer’s piece in The New Yorker earlier this year or, more recently, encountered this video floating around the Internet:
“The Marshmallow Test” eh? Cute. But where exactly is the science here? What’s the experiment getting at? Well, it’s actually about patterns of thought. It’s about how we think through the situations we find ourselves in. And it’s about changing how we perceive the external world by controlling our internal states. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.
In the late 1960s, Walter Mischel—a Stanford professor at the time, working with the Bing Nursery School, but currently teaching at Columbia University—came up with a test to explore why some individuals are better at delaying gratification than others. His idea was as follows: researchers present preschoolers with a marshmallow—all sweet and fluffy—and tell them that they must make a choice: (a) either they can eat the marshmallow right away, or (b) they can wait; if they can resist temptation while the researcher briefly leaves the room, they will get a second marshmallow upon his return.
Some children managed to entirely resist the natural urge to grab the treat before them, earning a second; others struggled valiantly—trying to distract themselves—before giving in; still others found it altogether too much to bear, devouring the marshmallow minutes after the researcher exited or even before he made it out the door. But this wasn’t just a matter of some individuals being hungrier than others; or some kids having more will power than others; nor was it that some kids just really really really liked marshmallows. Everyone wanted the marshmallows. The difference, according to Mischel, is in how the preschoolers thought about their dilemma. In The New Yorker article, Mischel explains: “What we’re really measuring with the marshmallows isn’t will power or self-control. It’s much more important than that. This task forces kids to find a way to make the situation work for them. They want the second marshmallow, but how can they get it? We can’t control the world, but we can control how we think about it.”
The children who delayed gratification did so by manipulating their own thinking about the situation they found themselves in. They intentionally distracted themselves—singing songs, covering their eyes—anything to get them away from thoughts about the delicious marshmallow and how easy it would be to give in. Learning these kinds of cognitive tricks, learning how to control one’s urges and defer gratification, takes time and practice. But some children might have a natural advantage: some children might be particularly good at what Mischel calls “strategic allocation of attention,” simply because it’s an inherent part of their personality. But even if nature predetermines some aspects of our personalities for us, there’s always nurture—our social environments and personal experiences—to make things a bit more interesting.
Several years down the road, Mischel found some intriguing correlations: preschoolers who’d experienced trouble delaying gratification had lower SAT scores as teenagers compared with those preschoolers who were able to resist temptation; they had more trouble maintaining attention in school, too; and they had more social and behavior problems. But what if children who exhibit particular difficulty resisting desires can be taught the same cognitive tricks used by children who are naturally adept at deferring gratification? It seems there’s real promise here and it’s something Mischel has already looked into. As Lehrer describes in The New Yorker piece, “When [Mischel] and his colleagues taught children a simple set of mental tricks—such as pretending that the candy is only a picture, surrounded by an imaginary frame—he dramatically improved their self-control. The kids who hadn’t been able to wait sixty seconds could now wait fifteen minutes. ‘All I’ve done is given them some tips from their mental user manual,’ Mischel sa[id]. ‘Once you realize that will power is just a matter of learning how to control your attention and thoughts, you can really begin to increase it.’”