Fifty years ago, Walter Mischel embarked on a now famous study called "The Marshmallow Test" in which young children are presented with a simple choice: eat one marshmallow immediately, or wait for several minutes and be awarded with an additional treat.
Mischel returned to the study's birthplace last week, Bing Nursery School at Stanford, to present the findings discussed in his new book, "The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control."
Attendees in the packed auditorium were all ears for Mischel's talk, which gave an overview of his long-term study on children's ability to delay gratification and how that predicts developmental outcomes and success later in their lives. He also shared truths about misconceptions of the study, such as the diminutive size of the treats he used in the original study compared to the giant marshmallow pictured on the cover of his book.
The inspiration for testing children's self-control came from Mischel's three young daughters. Watching them develop left Mischel wondering what was going on in their heads and spurred him to begin a study at the Bing school.
"As I saw them go from zero to 5, I saw this incredible miracle in which kids change in this extraordinary, dramatic and wonderful way," Mischel said. "They go from the impulsive creature that Freud described in great detail, to becoming wonderful human beings that you can actually have conversations with."
Although the Bing children were never filmed, Mischel presented a recording of a different study group to highlight common, and priceless, reactions from the kids. The reactions varied from child to child and showed some inventive ways they distract themselves from the sweet. (Watch one replication of the study.)
The kids resisted the treat by singing tunes, swinging their legs, turning themselves around and picking their noses -- all yielding different delay times. One boy didn't waste a second and immediately devoured the treat, which Mischel characterized as the "straightforward 'to hell with it'" method. The reactions and wait times the children displayed showed the different tools they each possessed.
Ten years after the initial testing, Mischel followed up on the Bing school subjects to analyze the trajectory of their willpower, and he continued to check up with them over the years. He explained the correlation between their ability to maintain self-control in the face of tasty marshmallows and outcomes later in life. Children who were able to resist longer tended to score higher on the SAT, cope well with stress and fare better socially as they grew older.
Marshmallows are not soothsayers, however, and testing poorly does not guarantee an unfortunate future. According to Mischel, certain strategies to increase willpower can be taught and learned -- a hopeful sign for short-term delayers.
"I saw that the question I really wanted to address is, once the choice has been made, 'I want the delayed reward, I want the bigger thing," what makes it possible to resist the power of the immediate temptation?" Mischel said.
He presented further testing that showed impulsive behavior can be quelled by utilizing a number of strategies, such as pretending the marshmallow is just a picture of a dessert, or focusing on what Mischel calls "cool" qualities of the object of desire. Instead of considering the yummy, chewiness of a marshmallow, a child might think about how it looks round and puffy like a cloud.
Another mental tool is to imagine living the decision before making the choice, to really visualize the consequences of immediate actions. Mischel related the difficulty of looking ahead to the struggle he had when he quit smoking. At first, hearing about the negative health effects the habit could have on him did nothing to ease his addiction.
He shared a vivid memory of seeing a cancer patient in the hospital painted with green crosses for radiation treatment. The image stuck with him and became a horrible reminder of the consequences of smoking. One day he made a deal with his daughter and vowed to quit.
"'You stop sucking your thumb; I'll stop sucking my pipe,'" Mischel remembered saying.