The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control, Part One


“I think, therefore I can change what I am.” is a good theme for this book. Walter Mischel developed the marshmallow test with students at Stanford in the 1960s. In the test, a young child has a marshmallow placed in front of them and are told that they can eat it at any time. However, if they wait, they will get two marshmallows instead of one. The experimenter then leaves the room and the child is observed to watch the strategies they employ and how long they resist the temptation. The child’s degree of self-control was found to have a high degree of correlation with how they performed in their world. What was not expected is that their self-control on the test correlates with individuals’ behaviors decades later.


That these skills are not genetically determined has implications on child-rearing and public policy. The early years are very important – what is now known as sensitive periods – but self-control can also be developed later in life. To read more in the author’s words…

The ability to delay immediate gratification for the sake of future consequences is an acquirable cognitive skill. p. 3

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Trust is an important factor in the willingness to delay gratification. Consistent, loving parenting is important in the development of this skill. If parents are not consistent in producing what they promise, taking what you can now is a better strategy. p. 17

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Self-regulation is very important in getting along with peers. p. 23

When the SAT scores of children with the shortest delay times were compared with those of the longest delay times, the overall difference was 210 points. p. 24

Individuals who had lifelong low self-control on our measures did not have difficulty controlling their brains under most conditions of everyday life. Their distinctive impulse control problems in behavior and in their brain activity were evident only when they were faced with very attractive temptations. p. 27images (3)

It is more helpful to teach children to think happy thoughts as a method to delay satisfaction than it is to cue them to think about the rewards for which they are waiting. p. 32

The effect of the stimulus on us depends on how we represent it mentally. p. 34Impulse-Control

The emotions of the preschoolers affect their self-control. If they are sad, they have much less self-control than they do when they are happy. This is also true for adults. p. 35

Most children did not recognize the value of thinking of consequences over reacting immediately until they were 12. p. 40images (4)

The fact that children can demonstrate much more self-control when they change their thoughts about the temptation, demonstrates that children can learn strategies to change their behaviors. p. 42

Learning and practicing some strategies for enabling self-control early in life is a lot easier than changing hot, self-destructive, automatic-response patterns established and ingrained over a lifetime. p. 45

It is important to recognize that high stress attenuates self-control. p. 46

Girls usually wait longer than boys. p. 47


Under stress to solve problems, the part of the brain which enables problem solving becomes less available. p. 50

Research demonstrates the importance of learning to regulate attention to control stress early in life. p. 54

Within a few months of birth, caregivers can begin to switch their infants’ attention away from feelings of distress and toward activities that interest them, and in time this helps their babies learn to self-distract to calm themselves. p. 55baby-sucking-thumb

There are large individual differences but many five-year-olds can understand and follow complex rules, like “If it’s the color game, put the red square here, but if it’s the shape game, put the red square there.” While these skills are still in the early stages in the preschooler, by age seven, children’s attention-control skills and the underlying neural circuits are surprisingly similar to those of adults. p. 57

Parents who overcontrol their toddlers risk undermining the development of their children’s self-control skills, while those who support and encourage autonomy in problem-solving efforts are likely to maximize their children’s chances of coming home from preschool eager to tell them how they got their two marshmallows. p. 60images (5)

Now called If-Then implementation plans, these plans have helped students study in the midst of intrusive temptations and distractions, aided dieters in forgoing their favorite snacks, and enabled children with attention deficit disorders to inhibit inappropriate impulsive responses. By forming and practicing implementation plans, they can become automatic so the temptation immediately triggers the plan so it becomes less effortful. p. 67

The continuing challenge is to translate these procedures from short-term experiments into long-term intervention programs that produce sustained change in everyday life. p. 69