Professor Behind the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment Explains the Value of Self-Control Skills

Nearly 50 years after his famous self-control experiment involving marshmallows and pre-schoolers, Columbia professor Walter Mischel has published a book about mastering impulses.

Many people, when asked to name a famous psychological experiments, will point either to Philip Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment or Pavlov's Dog or any of a number within the popular canon. Among these is professor Walter Mischel's famous 1970 Stanford Marshmallow Experiment, a test of self-control that gave pre-schoolers the option of having one treat now or two treats later if they could only wait patiently for 15 minutes. The children who exhibited the most self-control went on to achieve more success and encounter fewer life troubles than those who couldn't resist the urge to gobble up the one marshmallow.

While many parents took this as a sign that their impulsive children were doomed from the start, Mischel explains that his experiment is not meant to be treated as a harbinger of an individual's destiny but rather an indicator of how valuable self-control skills can be. 

New York Times writer Pamela Druckerman recently interviewed Mischel about his new book, The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self Control. In it, Mischel explains that these vital skills are not simply innate and can be learned by those seeking to add them to their repertoire. From Druckerman:

"Part of what adults need to learn about self-control is in those videos of 5-year-olds. The children who succeed turn their backs on the cookie, push it away, pretend it’s something nonedible like a piece of wood, or invent a song. Instead of staring down the cookie, they transform it into something with less of a throbbing pull on them...

[Mischel] explains that there are two warring parts of the brain: a hot part demanding immediate gratification (the limbic system), and a cool, goal-oriented part (the prefrontal cortex). The secret of self-control, he says, is to train the prefrontal cortex to kick in first."

Basically, you need to form a plan in order to combat bad habits and unwise urges. One strategy is to incorporate an "if-then" routine. Druckerman uses the example "If it's before noon, I won't check my e-mail." Setting up these guidelines in your mind and then striving to abide by them will help you on the path to taming your impulses and strengthening your self-control.

For more about the experiment, Professor Mischel, and how to build your own self-control skills, keep reading at The NY Times

Photo credit: Diana Taliun / Shutterstock

How to vaccinate the world’s most vulnerable? Build global partnerships.

Pfizer's partnerships strengthen their ability to deliver vaccines in developing countries.

Susan Silbermann, Global President of Pfizer Vaccines, looks on as a health care worker administers a vaccine in Rwanda. Photo: Courtesy of Pfizer.
  • Community healthcare workers face many challenges in their work, including often traveling far distances to see their clients
  • Pfizer is helping to drive the UN's sustainable development goals through partnerships.
  • Pfizer partnered with AMP and the World Health Organization to develop a training program for healthcare workers.
Keep reading Show less

Scientists claim the Bible is written in code that predicts future events

The controversy around the Torah codes gets a new life.

Michael Drosnin
Surprising Science
  • Mathematicians claim to see a predictive pattern in the ancient Torah texts.
  • The code is revealed by a method found with special computer software.
  • Some events described by reading the code took place after the code was written.
Keep reading Show less

Juice is terrible for children. Why do we keep giving it to them?

A glass of juice has as much sugar, ounce for ounce, as a full-calorie soda. And those vitamins do almost nothing.

Pixabay user Stocksnap

Quick: think back to childhood (if you've reached the scary clown you've gone too far). What did your parents or guardians give you to keep you quiet? If you're anything like most parents, it was juice. But here's the thing: juice is bad for you. 

Keep reading Show less

Orangutans exhibit awareness of the past

Orangutans join humans and bees in a very exclusive club

(Eugene Sim/Shutterstock)
Surprising Science
  • Orangutan mothers wait to sound a danger alarm to avoid tipping off predators to their location
  • It took a couple of researchers crawling around the Sumatran jungle to discover the phenomenon
  • This ability may come from a common ancestor
Keep reading Show less