SWEET SMELL OF VICTORY

The founder of the famous marshmallow test had some great advice about self-control

The sweetness of delayed gratification.
The sweetness of delayed gratification.
Image: Kate Ter Har/CC BY 2.0
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He offered children a plate of marshmallows, and became one of the 20th century’s most cited psychologists.

Walter Mischel, who died on Wednesday (Sept. 12), was a clinical psychologist best known for his work on delayed gratification. In a series of studies in the 1960s and 1970s, Mischel told children between the ages of three and five that if they could wait 10 minutes to eat a treat, they’d be rewarded with two. Later, he found that the ability to wait longer appeared predictive of how children would achieve in school and in life. (Modern attempts to replicate the study have had differing results, suggesting that the test may have been better at gauging parental wealth than it was any other metric.)

“I’m the marshmallow man,” he once cheerfully told the New York Times.

In the process of his work, Mischel developed strategies for self-control that he eventually applied to his own life. Once, for example, he made a promise to his three-year-old daughter that if she stopped sucking her thumb, he’d stop smoking his pipe.

Breaking a habit works like this, he told the New Yorker: If you want to stop yourself from wanting something, you mentally ring-fence it to make it less desirable—and busy yourself with something else, to keep your mind off it.

“The key, it turns out, is learning to mentally “cool” what Mischel calls the “hot” aspects of your environment: the things that pull you away from your goal. Cooling can be accomplished by putting the object at an imaginary distance (a photograph isn’t a treat), or by re-framing it (picturing marshmallows as clouds not candy). Focussing on a completely unrelated experience can also work, as can any technique that successfully switches your attention.”

In Mischel’s case, he used the technique to eventually replace his pleasurable associations with smoking with the image of a man in hospital.

For small children, the key to self-control is often finding a distraction from the object of their desire. “Four-year-olds can be brilliantly imaginative about distracting themselves, turning their toes into piano keyboards, singing little songs, exploring their nasal orifices,” he told The Atlantic in 2014.

But adults may do better by implementing slightly more sophisticated “if-then” strategies: Someone trying to give up smoking, for instance, might choose to take a break to play a game on their phone instead of having a cigarette.

It helps if you have some kind of motivation nudging along your efforts in self-control. Mischel’s best graduate students were not the ones with the most sitzfleisch, but the ones who were there because they wanted to answer some kind of burning question, he told the Times—to cite one example, why some people don’t recover from heartbreak.

The more you employ these tactics, the better you’ll get at them—and the happier you’ll be. “We’ve found a way to really improve human choice and freedom,” he told the New Yorker. “If we have the skills to allow us to make discriminations about when we do or don’t do something, when we do or don’t drink something, and when we do and when we don’t wait for something, we are no longer victims of our desires.”