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So your kid failed the marshmallow test. Now what?

The Marshmallow Test

Editor’s Note: In part two of Paul Solman’s conversation with Columbia psychologist Walter Mischel, father of the famous marshmallow test and author of the new book of the same name, Mischel explains what failing the test means. In part one, he explained what it doesn’t mean, namely that you’re doomed for life. Quite the contrary, Mischel insists.

The most overlooked aspect of his research, Mischel argues, is that willpower — the motivation to resist that marshmallow or go to the gym or quit smoking (in his own case) — is localized. The first step to overcoming those weaknesses is finding where they’re contextualized; in other words, finding our emotional “hotspots.”

Read Paul’s conversation with Walter below, but first, watch Paul explain the test to Sesame Street’s Grover, and to the rest of Sesame Street at the bottom of this post.

— Simone Pathe, Making Sen$e Editor


PS: So talk about what one would do if you failed the marshmallow test. First, on a personal level. The woman who interviewed you at The Atlantic who said her kid couldn’t resist the marshmallow and asked you, “What do I do?” What do you tell her?

Part I with Walter Mischel

What the marshmallow test really tells us

WM: I would remind her that there are a large number of cognitive skills that can be used and practiced if kids have serious self-control problems. I don’t think her kid has a serious self-control problem. Her kid sounds like he’s living a very overindulged life in which he doesn’t give a damn about this stuff, and there’s no particular reason for him to wait if mom is offering him cupcakes.

One of the interesting things about the Stanford studies – on the cover of my book, they show a marshmallow, a regular large marshmallow. But we made a point of using the tiny little marshmallows. We’re talking about a commitment situation in which a kid has decided that he’s going to have these two little things instead of one little thing. It’s a commitment situation, and it’s really much more about achieving a goal. The media, again, act as if when the kids can’t resist gobbling it, and in fact, it is a huge temptation when they’re focusing on it in a hot way –

PS: “Hot”? You mean emotionally salient?

WM: Yeah, even technically now, I would say that their limbic system is activated and they become emotionally activated, as you say, and are reflexively drawn to do what the limbic system does – namely to grab it, take it – and that does happen, particularly when you’re using the large marshmallow. But what we found is that many of the kids in the Stanford study would, when they waited successfully, as 26 percent of them did, they would bag it and take it home to show mommy, “Look what I did!”

PS: You even used poker chips at one point, right?

WM: We did use poker chips at one point. They were very nice, shiny poker chips of different colors, two versus one, and we got the same effects.

PS: So what does a parent do about this? And what does a grownup do about this in terms of their own lives? All of us struggle with these issues in regard to overeating, drinking too much. You yourself quit smoking, right?

WM: One of the things that I’m very impressed by, which started with a study I did way back at Stanford with a device that we created that’s called Mr. Clownbox, was with pre-school kids, four and five years old. We had them in a chair, and we wanted to see what they do if they have a really terrific tempter out there that I could get past my own children’s advisory council, not to mention the IRB’s and my research colleagues.

PS: A socially respectable version of the Siren Song.

WM: Exactly. And so the kids were given a really dull job – matching x’s and o’s – very boring stuff that they had to do in order to get some wonderful prizes that were kept wrapped up on a shelf somewhere in the back. So their goal was to keep on working and not let themselves get distracted. Mr. Clownbox was this huge tempter, who was a box that lit up, with presents, and two windows and lights around his head that started glowing, and there was a tape recorder in this very attractive clown face that started saying things like, “Oh come look at my windows,” and “I’ve got these treats for you,” and “play with me.”

And the plans that we gave the kids were essentially if/then plans: “If Mr. Clownbox does this…then I will not look up from my work”; “When Clownbox starts up and tries to get me to pay attention to him, then I will…” So it’s an if/then very simple plan. Now these if/then plans have been picked up by many people, primarily by two psychologists – Gabriele Oettingen and Peter M. Gollwitzer – who are a couple at NYU who’ve done some very interesting spins on that clownbox study that have helped ADHD children and have had really very interesting effects in large sample studies helping people to control their snacking and so on. And it’s basically of the kind, “If I have a homework assignment, then I turn off my text messages.” “If I’m starting to get angry, then I take a deep breath and count backwards from 10.” There are variations on this that are practiced multiple times, the whole idea being to get them to be automatic so that they’re actually in the “hot” system.

What Economists Ignore

PS: This is like a professor friend of mine. Whenever he encounters a potential road rage situation, he literally pulls off the road for 10 seconds, and of course is counting to 10.

WM: And that’s all it takes because the moment you’re at five, your cool system is snapping in. The prefrontal cortex is there, your stress is going down. The problem is that high stress activates the limbic system, which is fine sometimes – when there’s a bullet, you dive under the table – it’s very protective; evolution did a good job on us. Similarly if you’re driving on the ice and you see a car coming at you out of control, you do whatever it takes reflexively in that situation.

But that’s not very good for retirement planning and it’s not very good for relationship enhancement, particularly if you have an anger problem. What those South Bronx studies taught us, and what the Oakland studies taught us, is that we’re not going to change people’s predispositions. People who easily get angry under certain circumstances are going to get angry. But the other side of my work that nobody talks about is that all of these willpower situations, when looked at closely, are actually enormously contextualized. And economists don’t really pay much attention to that.

We studied a substantial number of kids at a camp in New Hampshire called Wediko, but again not a huge sample because it’s enormously intensive. We have something like 180 hours of observation per child over six weeks that we filmed and coded at tiny, tiny intervals in terms of if/then relationships. For example, if an adult gives a time-out, then the researchers record it, then observe what the child’s behavior is.

We have an enormous database that we were able to analyze so that we could compare, for example, two kids – call then Anthony and Jimmy. They have the same average level of aggression. In trait terms, they’re high aggressive kids. But where their hotspots are – that is, where their limbic systems are being activated – is completely different.

One kid becomes aggressive when certain kinds of things happen to him with his peers, and weirdly, when the peers are nice to him, when they’re trying to play with him. This kid has real problems and you identify them by seeing where are his hotspots – not how much aggression he has. He has a lot, but it’s localized. The other kid has problems with adults, not with kids. So I’m giving this as an example to say that if we want to understand people like Tiger Woods or Bill Clinton or ourselves, we need to begin with an analysis of where the hotspots are regardless of the average level of the disposition.

PS: In other words, each of us has an extremely complex ecology, if you will, regarding what derails us.

WM: Yeah, both what derails us and what keeps us on track – it’s both ways, not only for our vulnerabilities; it’s also for our strengths. The point of this is in a book I wrote in 1968 that turned psychology upside down, and then psychology, in turn, turned itself right back to where it was before. But that’s another story. It had no impact on media whatsoever, no one paid attention to it in the outside world. But one of the reasons for this new book is that that work is in it. And I think that work is profoundly important.

PS: Because it’s how you actually help people deal with things that they have the ability to deal with but that would otherwise derail them.

WM: Exactly. To give you an example, the study that Yuichi Shoda at the University of Washington, my colleague of 35 years, did studied stress – people coming into the psychology clinic at the University of Washington reporting huge problems with stress. When he actually analyzes where that stress is experienced, it turns out to be really localized. For example, one woman whom I call by Jenny in the book, has stress, but only when she’s feeling socially excluded. But if you identify where the hotspot is, you have a way of understanding what is sustaining and motivating the behavior.

Editor’s Note: Paul’s conversation with Walter Mischel continues on Making Sen$e this afternoon, with Mischel recounting his own story of overcoming temptation. Below, Paul takes the marshmallow test to Sesame Street.


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