It all started when psychology professor Walter Mischel was watching his four closely-spaced daughters growing up. He realized he had no idea what was going on in their brains that made it possible for a child who at one moment had no impulse control and just a few months later could inhibit her emotions, wait for things and have conversations. He became curious about how children develop these skills, which led to the famous marshmallow experiment conducted at the Bing Nursery School on Stanford’s campus, where Mischel was a professor.
That study has become famous over the last 50 years, leading to many hilarious YouTube videos (none of which are the original test subjects) and a lifetime’s work examining how various strategies can help both adults and children learn to delay gratification.
In the original marshmallow study, researchers spent time building up trust and rapport with their 4-year-old subjects before starting the experiment. The researcher then told the child that she was going to leave him in the room with a treat (cookie, pretzel or marshmallow) and if he waited to eat it until she returned, she would give him two marshmallows. Alternatively, the child could put an end to his misery by ringing the bell, at which point the researcher would return, but the child would get only the one treat. Mischel and his colleagues followed the test subjects over the next 50 years and found that those who were able to wait fared better on a variety of indices, including higher SAT scores, better ability to cope with stress and a lower body mass index.
“One of the biggest determinators of choices of that kind is trust,” Mischel said at a Learning and the Brain conference in Boston.
He is now a psychology professor at Columbia University. Critics of his work often point out that children living in low-income communities, many of whom have experienced discrimination or disrespect from society, have no reason to trust those in positions of authority. Those kids might scarf down the marshmallow, not because they have no self-control but because they have no reason to believe the researcher is telling the truth about a second marshmallow.
Mischel agrees that the importance of a trusting relationship between the adult and child is often overlooked in reporting about his research. He began studying that aspect at the very beginning of this work.
“To even want to delay gratification requires a trust expectation that’s often not there for kids for whom self-control and delayed gratification is most difficult,” Mischel said. For children whose worlds are unstable and unpredictable, the marshmallow test may be testing belief in authority as much as self-control.
But aside from the specifics of the marshmallow test, lots of research has shown the value of self-control to positive life outcomes. That’s why Mischel is trying to focus the conversation on strategies educators and parents can use to help kids build self-control.
“The value of self-control has been measured in lots of longitudinal studies,” said Roy Baumeister, a psychologist at Florida State University who studies self-control and helped debunk an earlier theory that self-esteem was the foundation of academic success.
Self-control is the ability to override thoughts, impulses and emotions, and people who have it tend to do better in school and work. Baumeister said studies have shown people with high levels of self-control have better relationships, are happier, have less stress, are in better physical health, have better mental health and live longer.
Baumeister’s work has also helped demonstrate that self-control is like a muscle -- it can be strengthened with exercise, but it also tires. “You have one resource, willpower, and you can expend it on different things,” Baumeister said at a Learning and the Brain conference.
So if a child uses up all his willpower controlling his emotions, he may be too depleted to show a lot of self-control at performing tasks. Additionally, making decisions and compromising use the same reserves of willpower. When people are depleted, they are more likely to default to old behaviors, less likely to compromise, more likely to follow impulses and less likely to trust others.
Knowing how important self-control is for positive outcomes, but recognizing that many children are experiencing several demands for their self-control at all times, how can educators help students build up their self-control muscles so they don’t tire as quickly?
STRATEGIES TO DELAY GRATIFICATION
Mischel says that his studies of tactics used by 4- and 5-year-olds hold true for older people as well. One of the biggest ones is self-distraction. During the marshmallow test, kids sit in that room by themselves with the coveted marshmallow in front of them, and they sing to themselves or imagine they are somewhere else.
“It’s purposeful self-distraction with executive function,” Mischel said. “They have the goal in mind. They are actively inhibiting the responses. They are preventing hands from reaching out to take it.”
Another common strategy kids use is self-distancing. Mischel described one boy who picked up the bell he would use to call the researcher back into the room and slowly, very carefully, moved it to the edge of the table as far from him as possible. Other kids pretended the marshmallow was a picture, instead of real food, making it seem less attractive. Mischel even worked with "Sesame Street" on a Cookie Monster skit that would show young kids that it pays to wait.
While the original marshmallow test has come under fire for its small size and homogenous makeup (all the kids were either children of Stanford faculty or graduate students), Mischel has continued delayed gratification studies with students in the South Bronx with similar results. He said the keys are to keep the goal in mind, to suppress responses and to monitor progress toward the goal.
All humans have what Mischel calls a “hot system” and a “cool system,” both of which are crucially important. The hot system is where the fight-or-flight syndrome comes from. It is emotional, simple, stress-induced, reflexive, fast, centered in the amygdala and draws on the limbic system. It’s fundamental to survival and it develops early. When the hot system goes up, the cool system goes down. Mischel said most kids living in difficult situations are forced into using their “hot system” most of the time.
The cool system is cognitive, complex, reflective and slow. It is based in the frontal lobe and hippocampus and develops later. It is attenuated by stress and is crucial to self-control. The two systems work at opposite purposes, but both are important to survival and success.
When it comes to helping students delay gratification and thus work on self-control, Mischel said his experiments show “you have to cool the now and heat the later.” In other words, things that are immediate stimulate the hot system, but delayed gratification requires the cool system. So, when trying to get a student to see the benefit of working hard all the way through school so he or she can get into college, educators have to help students see that delayed reward as “hot.”
“The critical thing is to make delayed consequences more visible, more complete, more consequential and to make the immediate rewards less hot,” Mischel said. When kids are stressed out, it’s much more difficult for them to keep long-term goals in mind because they are constantly activating their “hot” or stress-induced system.
Mischel has personal experience with the strategies he recommends. He used to smoke three packs of cigarettes a day and often a pipe at night. He knew that smoking was bad for him, but that wasn’t enough to make the consequences feel real. One day he saw a man in the Stanford hospital getting ready for radiation. “That image is what allowed me to make the delayed consequences hot,” Mischel said. “Every time I reached for the cigarette, I remembered that image.” And he was able to quit smoking using that very personal image to help him delay gratification.
Mischel suggests that to help students develop self-control, educators could spend a little time helping kids identify their own hot spots and developing strategies to mediate them. For example, if a student knows that texts from friends distract him from homework, then he’ll turn off his phone when he’s trying to focus. It’s a pre-determined “if/then” plan based on specific trigger points. But to make that plan, students have to know what the “if” is.
“The research makes it very clear that the human brain is far more educable than previously thought,” Mischel said. He sees this kind of individual mapping as a key to developing emotional intelligence and ultimately as a route to much more freedom, choice and agency. Rather than having instinct drive decisions, kids can learn to make the decisions they believe will benefit them in the long term.
“We don’t want to train our children to be without hot emotionality, we just want them to be in control,” Mischel said.
Young people are actually getting better at delaying gratification and self-control, Mischel said. He points out that just as intelligence has been increasing over the past 60 years, so, too, have these other characteristics. He attributes the change to technology, and is particularly excited about video games, which he says require setting a goal, inhibiting interfering responses and using attention-control mechanisms to reach that goal.
“It may be a distraction from doing their arithmetic, but the games themselves can be enormously useful tools in enhancing executive function,” Mischel said.
Ultimately, he believes if educators can find productive ways to use his research in classrooms, they will also improve student motivation, which can’t be detached from the idea of student efficacy in meeting goals.
Want to stay in touch?
Subscribe to receive weekly updates of MindShift stories every Sunday. You'll also receive a carefully curated list of content from teacher-trusted sources.