A little over 40 years ago, Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel carried out the ‘Marshmallow Test’ which caught the popular imagination of the public at large. But in fact, it wasn’t a test at all! What Walter and his graduate students wanted to do was to observe how pre-schoolers reacted or responded to temptation.
The experiment went like this: Pre-schoolers were given a choice between one reward (a single marshmallow) which they could eat immediately, or if they waited for 20 minutes, they could have two of them. Some waited and some didn’t.
Entirely unexpectedly, out of curiosity, when Walter and his team followed these small cohorts of preschoolers over time, into their 20s and 30s, it turned out that their ability to wait in that pre-school experiment, ended up predicting some important life outcomes. The longer they had waited, the better their SAT scores; longer their attention spans; and they even had lower body mass indexes.
Did this mean that we were doomed by our DNA? That willpower and self-regulation were pre-wired? And those who had it would succeed and those who didn’t, would succumb to temptation, derail from their goals and even fall to addiction?
Yes and No… Walter pointed out. But what was most exciting to watch for Walter’s team was that while it as true that some pre-schoolers had well-developed executive function skills – that is conscious control of thoughts, impulses, actions and emotions and which are also involved in decision making, problem-solving, reasoning, they exhibited three thinking strategies to avoid eating the marshmallow immediately.
All of them who waited had these three thinking strategies in common:
- Recalling: They kept their long time goal in mind: “I want two Marshmallows. If I eat this now, I won’t get 2.”
- Monitoring: They had to monitor their progress by shifting their attention between goal-oriented thoughts and temptation-reducing techniques: “I need to think about something else, so that I stop thinking about eating this now.”
- Inhibiting: They had to inhibit the initial impulse to grab the Marshmallow: “I don’t need to grab it right now.”
The long term implication of this meant that by deliberately deploying these thinking toolkits as distinct cognitive skills, could actually help someone wait and focus on long-term goals!
Are executive function skills, innate or teachable? That debate still persists.
Emerging research in neuroscience now tells us that the brain is more malleable and plastic than was ever thought of before. That we do have control over our habits of thoughts, feelings and actions. This in turn means, we can learn to think like the pre-schoolers who waited, and we can develop the trait to wait. Indeed, neuroplasticity tells us that if we were to choose to pay attention to a different thought, it would have profound implications on what we feel and what we do.
In 2018, Walter published a book called The Marshmallow Test – Understanding Self-Control And How to Master. In it he summarized his research journey by stating, “We are not winners or the losers in the DNA lottery.” That indeed, to what the great philosopher Descarte had said, “I think therefore, I am,” Mischel would’ve liked to correct him and say, “I think, therefore, I can change what I am.”
With grit and gratitude,
The Sai Shiko team