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The Marshmallow Test

Mastering Self-Control

By Walter Mischel
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  • Contains 9 key ideas
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The Marshmallow Test by Walter Mischel

The Marshmallow Test explains why being able to delay gratification and exercise our self-control is essential for living a successful life. Using insights gained from several psychological studies, it explains how exactly our self-control skills function, and what we can do to improve them.

Key idea 1 of 9

The “marshmallow test” was developed to understand how children control their urges.

Have you ever teased a young child by offering her a treat, then saying she can’t eat it right away?

If not, that’s alright, because scientists have done it for you in a clinical test! It was called the Marshmallow Test, and it provided us with some interesting insights on human behavior:

For the test, children were first allowed to choose their favorite treat. A researcher would tell the child they could either have the treat now, or have two later after the researcher had left and come back. Then the researcher left the room, but told the child they could call them back if they couldn’t wait any longer. The child was then left alone with the treat on a tray in front of them.

Researchers secretly watched the children to see how they would handle the situation. Naturally, some children ate the treat right away. Others waited a bit, then ate it. Some children, however, managed to resist the treat, and they all used the same strategy to do so. The children who successfully resisted eating their treats managed it by distracting themselves from it.

They used different strategies for this. Some sang songs, and others tilted and played with their chairs.

The kids came up with those strategies themselves, but then the experimenters tried teaching the children distraction techniques beforehand. This turned out to help the children a great deal.

Before the test, researchers taught the children if-then plans. For example, if my hand moves towards the treat, then I will start singing a song. When the children reminded themselves of what they were doing each time they went for the treat, they found it easier to wait.

The Marshmallow Test seems simple, but it actually has profound implications, as you’ll see in the following blinks.

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