Two varieties of human emerge from the pages of The Marshmallow Test, a new book by the esteemed psychologist professor Walter Mischel. The first kind is optimistic, hopeful for the future. They’re more likely to be successful in school, work and love. They’re also thinner, calmer, more sociable, less likely to be addicted and better savers of money. The other kind of human is the other kind of human. And, yes, there I was, deconstructed across the pages in the mercilessly rational tone of the scientist: the creature who couldn’t concentrate at school, failed at education, was “rejection-sensitive” and struggled with alcohol, drugs, petty criminality, fat, love, sugar and friends. The incredible thing about Mischel’s book is that he claims all these failings are connected by one single quality: self-control. Not only that, he believes he has a method, in the form of a few simple thought exercises, to help the other kind of human transform their lives.
The Marshmallow Test: Understanding Self-control and How To Master It
by Walter Mischel
I’ve arranged to meet Mischel in a coffee bar in the low-lit rear of a Soho hotel. Now in his mid-80s, he is slender and quick, a New York talker, a man of polished anecdotes, long digressions, and strong opinions disguised with smiles. He opens his tale in the early 1960s, when he was a professor at Stanford University. “I began with a truly burning question,” he says. “I wanted to know how my three young daughters developed, in a remarkably short period of time, from being howling, screaming, often impossible kids to people who were actually able to sit and do something that required them to concentrate. I wanted to understand this miraculous transformation. When do they begin to control themselves and how do they do it? I realised this was a huge blank in the scientific literature.”
I have a personal interest in those same questions, for my daily life is pocked with failures of self-control. I certainly fit his description of being “rejection-sensitive”, and as a younger man made a string of romanticrelationships toxic with jealous paranoia. I can’t concentrate on my work or stop eating cheeseburgers or contain my temper in peak moments of stress. I’m currently both dieting and liaising with the most pompous estate agent in England. When I received a particularly obnoxious email from him the other day, I dialled his number with shaking fingers and spent five minutes in a bliss of white rage. Anger, for me, is a particularly difficult behaviour to manage, because it makes you someone else. It reorders your world in such a way that, in the moment you lose it, you sincerely believe you’re behaving correctly. You don’t even try to exercise self-control because you’re so obviously right. It’s only later, when you’re sitting there, smeared in your own failure, that you realise what you’ve done.
Mischel’s interest in self-control in children led to an experimental protocol that remains iconic within social psychology, and became known as the marshmallow test. It involves a pre-schooler, a selection of treats and a bell. The child sits at a table with a marshmallow on it and is left alone for 10 minutes. He or she is given a choice. Ring the bell to call the examiner back, and you get to eat the sweet straight away. Or don’t ring: wait for the examiner to return, and if you manage this, you get two sweets. Which children would take the wiser course and wait? And for the failures, how many seconds of delay would there be before sweet entered impatient mouth? How long could they manage?
In the years that followed the studies, Mischel would sometimes ask after the children he’d examined, a few of whom were known by his daughters. “I’d say, ‘How’s Sam doing? How’s Debbie doing?'” The answers intrigued him. “It looked to me like there was a relationship between how their friends were doing in their lives and what their seconds of delay were.” When those who were high in self-control as children were surveyed 12 years later, they seemed to be thriving. According to his book, they “yielded less to temptation; were less distractible when trying to concentrate; were more intelligent, self-reliant, and confident; and trusted their own judgment. When under stress they did not go to pieces… In short, they managed to defy the widespread stereotype of the problematic, difficult adolescent, at least in the eyes and reports of their parents and teachers.”
It seemed extraordinary that so many critical aspects of self could have the same heartbeat thumping away inside them. The part about “more intelligent” was especially astonishing. Was Mischel implying self-control somehow increased intelligence? How was that even possible? Today, he surprises me by downplaying much of what his book proclaims. “There was a correlation,” he says, of the link between self-control and personality traits. “But correlation is not causation, and it was a far, far, far from perfect correlation. It was a very imperfect correlation. But beyond chance.” And were they really more intelligent? “It’s not that they were more intelligent,” he says. “Their SAT scores were higher. Intelligence is not what this is about.”
Right. So, anyway, if all Mischel had done was merely observe these links, we wouldn’t be sitting here today. His life’s mission as a psychologist has not been merely to discover imperfect correlations; he has sought to actively transform the lives of the powerless. This urge draws its energy from the “great, full memories” he has of having been a Jewish child in prewar Vienna. “I had new shoes, and some Hitler Youth surrounded me and began to step all over them,” he recalls. “My father, who could only walk with a cane, was made to go through humiliating experiences, like marching around without it, having tomatoes thrown, with people jeering. It was not a happy time.”
Luckily, the Mischels managed to escape to the US, where they were forced to adjust from upper-middle-class lifestyles to those of poor refugees. His disabled father, a former chemical engineer, was reduced to working door-to-door selling shoes. “In terms of my own life goals,” Mischel says, “it became, how do you restore the situation? How can you transform your life? What are the enabling conditions that allow people to go from being victims to being victors?”
His contemporaries were interested in talking cures, but he began to look at the various tactics the high-delayers in his marshmallow tests engaged to achieve their ends. “The kids who could do it weren’t stoically saying to themselves, ‘Just be strong and resilient,'” he says. “Not at all. One little girl would begin making believe her toes were piano keys, others would explore their nostrils and ear cavities and play with the products, others would sing little songs, others would engage in silent dialogues, others would turn away, so they couldn’t see it. We wanted to analyse it exactly: what are the kids doing? What works and what doesn’t work in making it possible to control yourself?”
It would be great if I could defang some of the monsters that disrupt my daily life, with a few simple exercises. First, I have to understand Mischel’s model of how the brain works. Many of his techniques involve manipulating what he terms the “hot” and the “cold” modes of thinking (referring to our powerful emotional and instinctive drives as “hot” and our weaker calculating, rational parts as “cold”). The successful children in the marshmallow test tended to be better at using their “cold” rational mechanisms to override their emotional, animalistic “hot” bits, with distraction techniques.
Mischel explains how he manipulated his own hot/cold systems when he was giving up smoking. He’d overwhelm his cravings by visualising a horrific memory of a cancer patient at Stanford’s medical school, “on a gurney [stretcher], with x-marks on his head and exposed chest, being wheeled into radiation”. He’d also take deep breaths from a can of cigarette butts and pipe excreta. In doing so, he “cooled” the part of his mind that was gasping for nicotine and “warmed up” the calculating bit by making the future consequences of smoking – the stench, the disease – a part of his immediate visceral experience.
Another method involved turning your desire into something abstract or not quite real. You might place an imaginary picture frame around a pizza, for example, and pretend it’s a painting. You should also concentrate on the qualities of your temptation that are not so “hot”; so the chocolate isn’t melty and rich, it’s a brown, plastic-looking oblong approximately 15cm in length. If you’re struggling with a noxious state of mind, such as anger or nerves, you can cool yourself down by considering your situation as if you’re an onlooker. “What if I’m preparing for a speech and I’m falling apart?” Mischel says. “Then I think, ‘Walter’s got to give this big speech tomorrow on the BBC.’ A simple thing like referring to yourself by your name rather than ‘I, me’ means you distance yourself.” So you’re not the hero of the movie any more; you’re the director? “Exactly right. Your role changes. You’re not in it; you’re looking at it. You’re the fly on the wall.”
For Mischel, these basic strategies are the key to self-control. The ability to defer gratification is as close as you might get to a superpower. It means you are a long-term tactician who has the strength to swat away petty temptations in order to achieve a distant yet valuable prize. You could argue that it’s the very definition of adulthood.
I had to try the test myself. As a man of nearly 40, I proudly told myself, I was more than capable of not eating a marshmallow for 10 minutes. Infinitely more difficult would be the new Cadbury bar with Oreo filling that had taken my breath away when I spotted it at the till of Country Stores the other day. (Those bastards at Cadbury have been torturing me lately with their ceaseless innovations, perhaps most deviously by inserting cheese biscuits – cheese biscuits – into their chocolate, with predictably sexual results.) It had been sitting on the egg shelf of my fridge, beside a forlorn scrotum of Mini Babybels, for 36 hours and had been on my mind almost constantly. It would be my marshmallow.
I put it on a plate (I don’t know why) and sat myself in front of it. The fact that there was no scientist entering with two bars later was a small but real tragedy, but at least I could attempt some of Mischel’s techniques. My mouth watered; I sighed deeply, realised I was sitting with my hands stretched towards the plate like a diabetic Jesus raising his arms to his sugary Lord, and folded them chastely on my lap. The precise purpleness of the packet, and the memories of a thousand past unwrappings, was an immediate assault. I could recall the touch of the plastic and its neatly sealed ends; the exact give of the tear as you pulled it apart; the way tiny crumbs would fall on to your skin as the waft of the chocolate drifted up, through the nose, and directly into the mind, which it enveloped into its warmly melting – oh god, oh god, oh god, oh god…
My hot thinking was dripping in chocolate and growing more powerful by the second. I tapped my feet, made little t-t-t-t-t sounds and rolled my shoulders. I imagined a picture frame around the bar, thought of it as nothing but a lump of mass-produced brown lies. But I wanted to eat the lies. They looked delicious. I brought forth an image of my stomach as it was in 2010, hanging over my belt like some sort of porridge accident. The chocolate felt as if it moved a centimetre or two backwards. I distanced myself yet further using another of Mischel’s methods. “Will is craving chocolate because he is weak and hungry,” I said out loud while looking down on myself, as if from the corner of the kitchen. “Will’s hot system is in retreat. It is being cooled down, but he still wants the chocolate. Will is delaying gratification. Will is winning. He is resisting. He really, actually is! Will is not going to eat the Dairy Milk Oreo bar.”
I I ate the Dairy Milk Oreo bar. It was disappointing.
Unfortunately for me, not everyone agrees the power of will is as simple to gain as Mischel promises. His equally decorated colleague, co-author of 2011’s New York Times bestseller Willpower, Professor Roy Baumeister, has spent three decades studying willpower. He’s concluded that it’s like a muscle that needs training. You don’t trick it with thought games; you build it up slowly, by exercising it. And, just like a muscle, it suffers short-term fatigue. If you’ve laboured all morning successfully resisting Dairy Milk Oreo bars, you’ll suffer “will fatigue” and be more likely to shout at your dog in the evening.
Contrary to the notion that it’s all in our heads, Baumeister provides a lengthy review of studies that suggest willpower draws disproportionately on blood glucose, a brain fuel. To attack Baumeister’s notion, Mischel supplies a paper that argues the contrary, and also cites the work of Stanford’s Professor Carol Dweck, who thinks our levels of willpower depend, to a great extent, on our beliefs. “If you believe that persisting in tough tasks is energising rather than depleting,” he writes, “will it protect you from will fatigue? Indeed yes: when people are led to think that effortful tasks will invigorate rather than drain them, they improve their performance on a later task.” He then dismisses Baumeister’s notion that willpower is like a muscle as probably nothing more than a “catchy metaphor”.
The two gods of self-control seem in catastrophic disagreement. Surprisingly, when I question Mischel on potential flaws in Dweck’s work, he backs away from it, insisting he’s merely describing her studies. “I’m not endorsing.” And he’s untroubled by his junking of Baumeister. “I know Roy well,” he smiles. “He doesn’t take criticism seriously.” I fish out the email Baumeister sent me, in which he accuses Mischel of “sloppiness”, “ignorance” and “indulging his prejudices”, before calling his dismissal of glucose as a factor “a loony assertion”. After our interview, I receive an email from Mischel’s representative telling me to expect a new version of The Marshmallow Test. When it arrives, a week later, the sentence dismissing Baumeister’s “catchy metaphor” has been deleted.
A broader problem with these techniques is the underlying psychology of me and my tribe. All those decades ago, Mischel suspected that, if children were to wait for two marshmallows, they first required an essential belief that their promise would be kept. They needed faith in others and the general universe that they would come through. They had to be optimists. The rest of us are reluctant to wait for future benefits because, for reasons either genetic or buried in our deep pasts, we don’t believe good things are likely to happen. We want the bird in our hand. The bush can get lost.
So what do we do when told it’s possible to change our futures by exercising an even small amount of effort in the present? No matter how much evidence underpins Mischel’s claims, the voice will always be there saying, “Yeah, it doesn’t work, and even if it does, it won’t work for me.” If this sounds like frustrating, self-defeating behaviour, it’s because we’re frustrating, self-defeating people. We’re pessimists. It’s what we do.
But I think there is something in what Mischel says. In the weeks following our interview, I find myself using the distancing technique, in which I narrate my situation as if I’m an onlooker. It adds a note of almost ironic detachment to whatever situation is causing me stress. But would I say his methods are going to change my life? Don’t be ridiculous. I’m not that sort of human.
Where there’s a will: eight steps to self-control
1 Transform the meaning of stimuli
“It sounds like a heavy phrase but what does it mean?” says Walter Mischel. “I have coeliac disease. When I eat gluten, I get a burning itch. So when I look at pasta, I don’t think of it as yummy, delicious and great, I think of it as poisonous, connected to the itch.”
2 Distance yourself
Look at yourself as if you’re a fly on the wall. Describe yourself to yourself as if you were another person. A simple thing such as referring to yourself by your name rather than “I, me” gives you an advantage.
3 Make the object of your desire abstract
Pretend it’s not really there. Put a frame around it in your head and make believe it’s only a picture.
4 Eat chocolate
If you need a momentary boost, scoff sugar. (This tip is less successful for dieters).
5 One thing at a time
Willpower is like a muscle that gets fatigued. If you’re dieting, don’t try to give up smoking at the same time.
6 Practise small
Willpower can be strengthened by regular practise, according to Roy Baumeister, who claims that even things as simple as making sure you’re always sitting up straight and speaking in complete sentences can build up your power of self-control, which will improve in other areas.
7 Eat well
Evidence suggests that self-control draws disproportionately on blood glucose, which is a fuel for the brain. Sleeping well and eating food that provides a long, slow release of sugar helps.
8 The ‘If, Then’ technique
Tell yourself, “If I see pie on the menu, then I’ll order the tuna salad.” It has to be highly specific and practised until automatic.
• The Marshmallow Test, by Walter Mischel, is published by Bantam Press at £13.99. To order a copy for £11.99, including UK mainland p&p, go to theguardian.com/bookshop or call 0330 333 6846.
Practical advice to start approaching the idea of self control. With the contribution of hypnotherapy we have the opportunity to rehearse the techniques described above (areas highlighted in black specifically apply to those aspects which can be mentally rehearsed in a state of hypnosis). This practice may allow those ideas/concepts/behaviours to sink into our subconscious mind in a faster and effective way, becoming part of who we are at that particular time in our lives.