The death of psychologist Walter Mischel focused attention on the famous marshmallow test which he created at Stanford University in the 1960’s. Critical of prevailing theories of personality he was interested in studying how actual life situations shape behavior. This meant looking at the context of an individual’s interactions, what a person’s goals are, and the rewards and risks of acting on impulse.

To this end he led a research team in a series of experiments with pre-school-age children. A child was presented with a marshmallow and told he could eat it, but if he waited until the examiner returned he could have two marshmallows instead of just the one. The children were videotaped during the time they were alone with the treat so it was possible to determine the range of time that a child was either able to wait or to eat the treat they were given.

Essentially, this was an experiment in delayed gratification and the videotapes made it possible to study the various things children did to enable them to wait. Looking at these videotapes one sees children closing their eyes, picking up the marshmallow and putting it down, picking pieces off the edges to taste, poking at the marshmallow, and various other creative moves. In one sequence, a child who has successfully waited for his reward stuffs both marshmallows into his mouth at once as if to compensate for the deprivation of waiting.

Mischel emphasized that the focus of the research was to identify the specific cognitive strategies and mental mechanisms, as well as the developmental changes that make delay of gratification possible. For example, between the ages of 4 and 6 years the older kids could delay their gratification longer. The executive function of the maturing brain was better able to override the impulses characteristic of younger children, a major challenge of development during the pre-school years. The research sought to identify the cognitive skills that underlie willpower and long-term thinking and how they can be enhanced.

The marshmallow test became famous when decades later Mischel was able to locate a number of the children who were in the original experiment and compare their later records to their behavior in the original test. A correlation was found between their earlier ability to delay gratification and later achievement both academically and in their achievement of other goals. This created a major focus on the importance of early impulse control and ability to delay gratification with the implication that one road led to success, the other to failure.

More recent studies that replicated the marshmallow test with preschoolers, while finding the same correlation between later achievement and the ability to resist temptation in pre-school, have interpreted the findings somewhat differently. The correlation was found to be much less significant after the researchers factored in such aspects as family background, home environment and the like. The conclusion was that the ability to hold out for a second marshmallow is shaped by a child’s social and economic background. It is that background, not the ability to delay gratification that is behind a child’s long-term success.

Mischel, himself, was less interested in the predictive value of early delayed gratification than he was in the strategies that can promote will power and the ability to delay gratification. Having been a heavy smoker for many years and having tried to no avail over time to stop, he was especially interested in what it was that could enable someone to succeed. The question he raised was, “how can you regulate yourself and control yourself in ways that make your life better?”

Finding and reinforcing those strategies for the individual child may be a better approach than marshmallows.

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