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Surprising Science

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

Want your child to be successful? Help her build self-control. Most middle-class children already receive enough cognitive stimulation to develop intelligence close to its full potential. In contrast, many children have room to increase their self-control.

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