Walter Mischel’s The Marshmallow Test is a really enjoyable book. His is a long career and he has numerous studies to draw upon. There are great details — a typical academic his first “Marshmallow” experiment was given a comically pompous title. “The preschool self-imposed delay of immediate gratification for the sake of delayed but more valued rewards paradigm” (Mischel, 2014, page 17). It was David Brooks who gave it the name of The Marshmallow Test which has helped popularize the research.
The test involves being offered one treat but with the possibility of getting more if the subject (child) can delay consuming the treat. Mischel has used it to study how we can resist temptation and how our ability to resist temptation predicts our future. Of course this is complex. Mischel rightly notes that a child who immediately consumes the treat isn’t doomed just as resisting temptation once isn’t an infallible predictor of a successful life. Indeed our ability to resist temptation depends upon the context — at its simplest you must like Marshmallows for that treat to be tempting. Being good at resisting one temptation doesn’t mean you can resist them all.
Throughout the book he returns to the idea that you can develop your ability to resist temptation. He ties this into real life issues and discusses how KIPP schools talk about character. I liked the fact that Mischel explained this as character isn’t my favourite term. Mischel explains: “I was worried when [the head of KIPP] first mentioned “character” because so often the term is used for inborn traits, but that is not what is meant in these schools. Instead, character is viewed as a set of teachable skills, specific behaviors, and attitudes — most important self-control…” (2014, page 250).
Despite his emphasis on learning self-control Mischel also says that we shouldn’t become so good at resisting temptation that we miss the opportunity to live. Learning when to yield, and when not to yield, to temptation seems vital.
Read: Walter Mischel (2014) The Marshmallow Test: Why Self-Control Is The Engine Of Success, Little Brown and Company.