The Marshmallow Test: Why Self Control Is the Engine of Success

Book Review-The Marshmallow Test: Why Self Control Is the Engine of Success

It was a wintery night, and I found myself in the emergency room with my son. I was madder than I remember ever being. I felt like someone who was supposed to protect him had failed him. They had failed to do what they knew would keep him safe and were forcing to him to endure needless pain. The battle for control in my mind was palpable. On the one hand, I wanted to yell, scream, and much worse, and on the other, I realized that I had to not do this, because releasing my frustration would only cause my son more – admittedly psychological – pain. My solution was odd – to say the least. To occupy my mind, to keep my executive function firmly engaged, I designed a home security system based on Raspberry Pi devices. I never intended to build it for real, but it was a sufficiently rich and complex puzzle that my executive function could remain fully engaged. I credit this exercise with my ability to – relatively speaking – retain my cool in an awful situation.

Miles away and years ago, Walter Mischel evaluated how children could hold out for two treats instead of the one that was visible to them. His test became known as the “marshmallow test” (since marshmallows were sometimes used as treats). Investigating the factors and strategies employed that would lead to gratification was interesting research – until it became instructive. Following up on the children, he discovered the paths of the children who delayed vs. those who couldn’t wait were radically different. This simple test had predictive powers for SAT scores and wages years downstream. Explaining the background, the findings, and what to do about them is what The Marshmallow Test is all about.

The Power of Self-Control

Imagine for a moment that I told you a simple genetic test could tell you what your weight would be like as an adult. Better yet, what if I could tell you how happy you would be as an adult? Would you be interested in taking the test – or having the test done for your children? Ignoring the concern for getting bad results, who wouldn’t want to be able to get a reasonably accurate idea of where our children will end up? Most of us would. That’s what the marshmallow test tells us. It points towards whether we’ll have a healthy, well-adapted life or a maladaptive one.

It’s important to say that the marshmallow test – or genetic tests for that matter – are indicative of a probable path. They’re predictive, not prescriptive. If you fail the marshmallow test, you’re not doomed. There are things that can be done to shape your future no matter what the test says – but we’ll get to that later.

It turns out that much of what we see as success in life is the result of good self-control. Our ability to appropriately manage our weight is numerous decisions about the right foods and the right amount of exercise. Our SAT score reflects our effort more than any inherent intelligence. (See Mindset for more.) The outcomes that the marshmallow test predicts are the outcomes from our ability to control our self and plan for the long term results we want for our life. Often this self-control is called willpower. (See Willpower for more on this view of self-control.)

Discover the Truth

The Influence of Trust

The invisible presence in the room that silently tipped the scales from right now into the future was trust. The more that the children trusted they would get the extra treat, the more they would be willing to wait. Their trust influenced their ability to wait – but what influenced their trust?

Some of the protocols for the tests were intentionally designed to create trust. Creating the opportunity for the child to call the researcher back in at any time was a simple indication that they would keep their word. However, the primary factors for whether or not they would trust the researcher reached well beyond the room. Fundamentally, children had different perspectives on trust. Those from one home – with both parents – might find that their world is filled with adults that keep their commitments. Those from single-parent homes have too much experience with adults who don’t keep their word to just blindly accept that adults will keep their word.

Trust – which leads to perceived safety – is what it takes to be vulnerable, but it is also what it takes to make a long-term bet, even if the long-term bet is 15 minutes. (See Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy for more.) Trust and the way that it is expressed has substantial impact on organizations, cultures, and societies. (See Trust: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order for more.) It’s not that surprising that it might have a profound impact on children facing tough decisions about what to do about their sugary pleasures and how they viewed them.

Shake It Like a Polaroid Picture

In the age of digital cameras, the idea of shaking a Polaroid picture is just ancient history for most. In the world of instant gratification, the Polaroid camera had the market locked in for pictures. The photo lab in a box was the staple when the pictures were needed right now – until digital cameras far outstripped them in ease of use, lower costs, and better image quality. While most people didn’t frame their polaroid pictures, changing a frame of reference can be powerful when you’re a child.

One of the powerful strategies used by children to allow them to delay their gratification was to think of the treat in front of them like it was only a picture of a treat. As one study child so aptly put it, “You can’t eat a picture.” The cognitive reframing from a treat that can be devoured to a simple abstract representation of what you’ll get was enough to cool their jets and help them wait it out until the researcher came back with their reward.

Changing the way of thinking about something – changing the frame – is enough to dramatically change the outcomes. Just as Milgram found in his experiments using adults to administer seemingly lethal shocks, small changes in the framing or power dynamics can change whether people are willing to seemingly kill someone they don’t know – or not. (See Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) and Influencer for more on Milgram’s work.) One way to control the framing is to ask yourself: what would someone else do?

What Would Jesus Do?

In the 1990s, bracelets and other items started popping up with the initials WWJD on them. It was a sort of inside joke and club handshake that Christians had. Without explanation, the WWJD bracelets looked like membership in a secret cult. With explanation, it was a simple – and effective – way to change behavior. WWJD was the reminder of the question, “What Would Jesus Do?” If there were a Bible story about this specific point in my life, how would Jesus respond? The idea is that if you’re a follower of Jesus, then you should do the same behavior. If he’s the moral compass by which you evaluate your decisions, then why not make it more direct and just ask what would he do?

As a tool, it’s effective. You remove the emotional component, and you simply make a pre-decision about how you’ll respond. In this case, you’ll do whatever Jesus would do. However, pre-decisions can be more than just a decision to follow what someone else would do. They can be about how you want to respond and how you identify yourself.

Pre-Decisions

The battle that rages between our basial brain and our neocortex is one that is described by Kahneman as System 1 and System 2 in Thinking, Fast and Slow. Johnathan Haidt explains it as the battle of wills between a rider and an elephant in The Happiness Hypothesis. Many people have been caught up in what has been termed “temporary insanity,” as their emotional brain grabs ahold of the controls and causes them to do things that they normally wouldn’t. (For more in the ethical and legal tangling of this idea check out The Lucifer Effect and Moral Disengagement.)

One powerful way to head the fight off at the pass is to make a commitment to a course of action before you’re in the heat of the moment. It’s a pre-decision. It’s a standard response to an if-then decision. It’s a way to get the emotional brain that’s effective at pattern matching to blindly connect the pattern to the if-then decision and execute that decision without a second thought. The result is that you’re not stuck in the moment of struggle trying to decide the right course of action, because the decision has already been made.

Who Am I?

Another way to short circuit the decision-making process is to decide what people like me do when they’re confronted with the choice. Made to Stick encourages us that people can make good decisions when they view the decision from the context of how people like them decide. If people like them are the ones who make the good long-term decision, then that’s what they’ll likely do. If, instead, they’re likely to live for the moment, their decision will be decidedly more focused on the current.

Helping to shape a self-image that is consistent with long-term values and high degrees of self-control will cause more decisions to be made in that way. An important corollary here is that who we are, our identity, is malleable. Dweck points out in Mindset that our way of thinking can lead us to understanding that we can fundamentally grow and change – or to decide that we’re not able to escape the orbit of our family, our environment, and our genetics. The research is clear that we can change the way we see ourselves and what we’re capable of.

Genes and Environments

The battle has raged on for century as to whether we are controlled by our genes or our environment. Judith Harris Rich exhaustively searched through the research to develop her theories about how much of what we are is from our genetics and how much is from our environment. Citing dozens of studies in her books The Nurture Assumption and No Two Alike, she settles on the conclusion that roughly 50% is genes and roughly 50% is non-genetic. She teases out issues with what would traditionally be called environment, recognizing that there is too much to environment to neatly fit categories. Small differences in opportunity may yield vastly different people. Glasser speaks of inner, quality worlds, and how they shape how people see their world. Argyris uses a ladder metaphor, with the lowest rung of the ladder being how we choose what data we see with the implication that this filtering changes everything else about our experiences. (See Choice Theory for more on Glasser’s perspective and for more on Argyris’ ladder of inference.)

We’ve discovered that the environment can activate and deactivate our genes. While we may have a predisposition to something, it can be that this tendency never gets activated in our environment.

Tabula Rasa

It was philosopher John Locke who proposed that we’re a blank slate, and it’s only our environment that shapes us. His radical idea pushed the pendulum into a more middle state today than it was in his time, when people believed that folks were determined by their heritage. (This was before genes were discovered and understood.) This idea has been the basis for many things, including the book by Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate. It’s at the heart of the questions that Judith Harris Rich asks in The Nurture Assumption and No Two Alike.

In reality, what we’ve discovered is that the slate is far from blank, but rather, to use Mischel’s words, it’s “encrypted” in a way that we don’t understand. My computer science background takes slight issue with his choice of words, because though we share most of the same genes as a mouse, we are quite different. Small differences making large ones, to me, is compression – not encryption. The understanding is no less opaque between encryption and compression, but it’s compression that yields a large change in output.

Combining the compressed genetic triggers with an environment that’s necessarily personal and nuanced explains why people become such unique adults. Each adult has the things that they’re interested in and their own triggers.

Triggers

Everyone has their own “hot buttons.” These are the things that will set them off, get them angry, or cause them emotional harm. For some people, it’s a negative comment about their appearance; for others, they’re particularly sensitive about feeling stupid. Others still are triggered by feeling like they’re not being heard. These triggers cause an emotional reaction that can generally be felt by anyone in the room. What Mischel’s research on self-control teaches us is that sometimes we can – and need to – put covers over our triggers so they’re harder to get to.

We’ve all seen the movie with the self-destruct button that’s covered by clear plastic, that the hero (or villain) must lift before they can slam their fist into the button itself. In old airplane dogfight movies, there are the switches that must first be flipped up before they can be activated. These are the kinds of covers we install over our emotional triggers as well.

Instead of the button sitting out in the open where anyone can hit it, the cover provides some buffer. Perhaps we’ll only react to comments about our appearance from our family or only respond to being made to feel stupid with our friends. We can contextualize our sensitivities and provide that extra layer of protection to being triggered. We need this to protect us from the often poor results that come from our poor decisions.

Consequences

To have self-control, we must know and internalize the idea that there are consequences for our choices. This is the lesson that we teach and reinforce to children to help them become productive members of society. We help them first build an understanding that there are consequences – both positive and negative – to their choices in certain realms, and then we help them generalize this concept, so they know that every choice they make has consequences.

Without this solid awareness of consequences, they cannot make decisions now that lead to better outcomes in the future. It’s consequences that provides the bridge from today to tomorrow.

Our Need for Control

We all have a desire to control. We want to control the things that we get in our life. We want to say that we did this, or we created that. Most people want to control other people while simultaneously not wanting to be controlled. We are obsessed with our need to be causal in our outcomes. Our need for the illusion of control blinds us to the fact that we’re never in control of the outcomes, we’re only in control of the conditions we can create that lead to the outcome. (See Compelled to Control for more on the topic of control.)

Change or Die acknowledges our psychological need to believe we have more control than we do just to avoid the thought that all our hard work can be wiped out in an instant. We can’t think about the fact that we may be crushed by an asteroid tomorrow, or we’ll never get any work done today. We must believe that our control is greater than it is. We must believe that, where we only have influence, we actually have control.

Most people recognize that they can’t force a plant to grow. You can’t say that, if I give it soil, air, and sunlight, it must grow. Instead, we create the conditions that influence a plant to grow in the right way, and we hope that the plant will grow. We don’t control the plant into growing. By creating the right conditions for growth, we influence the outcome.

This is the advanced lesson for consequences. What we do only sometimes has the consequences we expect. Because we don’t have control, sometimes the consequences don’t come as we would expect – positive or negative.

The Value of Optimism

It’s not that depressed people see the world in a distorted negative way. It’s that people with depression see the world more accurately. Instead of sugar-coating their capabilities and resources, they view the world as it actually is – and that’s a bad thing. It’s no secret that the world we have in our heads isn’t the actual world. It’s a construction that our minds have made up based on the data it has – and a whole lot of assumptions. (See Incognito for more one how our minds make things up.)

Generally speaking, the advice is to see things as they really are and to accept reality instead of denying its truth. This may be one exception, however. The presence of optimism makes us more creative, more innovative, more able to cope with life – while at the same time distorting our view of the world. Optimism is layered on our awareness that we don’t have control to help us believe that we’ll have enough influence to be OK.

Patience and Perseverance

What optimism gives you is the ability to be patient. Patience is at the heart of the marshmallow test. Can I be patient enough to wait for the good things to come? Even when trust is low and when we don’t know for sure, optimism allows us to hold out hope. (See The Psychology of Hope for more about hope.) Over time, we learn that, though we don’t have control, eventually if you try enough, things will work. We live in a probabilistic world, where we influence the probability of success – not guarantee it. (See The Halo Effect for more on the probabilistic world in which we live.)

Being persistently patient, persevering in our attempts to make our lives better, eventually means they’ll become that way. Grit is the way Angela Duckworth describes a set of skills that work together towards our eventual success. Optimism helps fuel the engine that allows us to stay afloat long enough to persevere, even when things aren’t going our way.

Changes in Attitude, Changes in Latitude

Jimmy Buffet sings a song, “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes” – but I think he has it backwards. Moving down to warmer climates may allow you to change your attitude easier – but you can change your attitude no matter where you are. The heart of changing the results in the marshmallow test – and in life – is to change your attitude. Changing your attitude from the world being a cruel place that you must fight and claw at and take what’s available now to a world of reliability and ultimate success can make all the difference in whether you’re willing to make investments in your future.

Sometimes those investments are waiting a few minutes as a researcher leaves the room. Sometimes those investments are hours spent studying. Sometimes those investments are more traditional, like a 401k. However, you make the investments, you’ll want to make them, so you can pass the test of life. You might just get some help along the way by looking at this cheat sheet to improving your score on The Marshmallow Test.

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  1. […] The answer isn’t in the sugary fluff.  The answer is in the skills that the children who were able to delay their gratification found.  These skills allowed them to make better long-term decisions over the course of a lifetime.  In short, they were willing to endure some level of pain today for the relief that it brings in the future.  (For more, see The Marshmallow Test.) […]

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