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on September 25, 2014
The Marshmallow Test by Walter Mischel, the man who started it all, is a book on self-control, probably the best one on the subject thus far. This book is everything that the currently leading book on the subject (Willpower by Baumeister and Tierney) is not: intellectually coherent, scientifically sophisticated, and concerned more about sound reasoning than about sound bites.

Research on self-control was probably started in earnest in the 1960s with Walter Mischel's celebrated "Marshmallow Test". Children around the age of five were given a choice between one marshmallow now or two marshmallows later, a delay lasting up to 20 minutes. While some ate the marshmallow right away, others used different strategies to control themselves such as averting their gaze, pulling their hair, squirming, closing their eyes or just sniffing the marshmallow and putting it back. The implications of this research came to life when researchers went back to the same children several years later. They found children who exercised self-control and waited 15 or 20 minutes to double their payoff had higher grade point averages, made more money and were fitter (as measured by BMI) when they were adults.

Genetics clearly plays a role in the level of self-control one has. The message of the book is that genetics is not destiny. Willpower is a cognitive ability and, because our brains are much more plastic than had been imagined in the past, we can substantially increase this crucial ability to control ourselves. This book shows how to gain more self-control.

Paralleling Daniel Kahneman's model of "fast" and "slow" thinking, Mischel describes two systems in the brain: "hot" (limbic) and "cold" (prefrontal cortex). The hot system deals with immediate rewards and threats while the cold system deals with delayed consequences. The key to self-control is cooling the hot system where appropriate. We need to learn to activate our prefrontal cortex first before the limbic system kicks in.

Can we actually increase our self-control? Mischel's response is yes, if you believe you can and if you really want to. In other words, you can increase your self-control if you approach it with a mindset that believes that increasing self-control is possible as opposed to a helpless mindset that believes willpower is a limited resource over which you have no control. But just having the right mindset may not be enough. We need strategies to cool our warm system.

Commonly used strategies for self-control often include removing the source of temptations (don't have junk foods around, if you are trying to eat healthy) or surrounding yourself with people who do not eat junk food. But these strategies are likely to fail without effective pre-commitment. You can remove all cigarettes from sight and yet mooch them from others. You can clear junk food from the kitchen and yet help yourself to sugar-laden cookies in business meetings. Mischel suggests that we should use more robust strategies based on research. Some such strategies are:

* MAKE UP "IF...THEN" RULES. We tend to react to cues out of habit. Create new habits with new cues. IF I go to a restaurant, THEN I will start my meal with a salad. IF I get an email notification, THEN I will finish the next item on my to-do list before reading the email. When well-rehearsed and practiced, the desired behavior is triggered automatically without effort.

* COOL THE NOW, HEAT THE LATER. Vividly imagine the negative consequences of immediate gratification: Whenever you are tempted to smoke, visualize the picture of a cancerous lung. If you are tempted overeat, visualize the picture of a person who is unfit and out of shape.

* DISTANCE YOURSELF FROM THE SITUATION. Refer to yourself in the third person. Instead of saying "I've to finish the report by tomorrow", I can say "Chuck has to finish the report by tomorrow." This way you distance yourself and change your role to that of an observer. This makes the completion of the task easier.

* SHIFT YOUR FOCUS FROM HOT TO COOL PROPERTIES. Shift your attention from the hot to the not-so-hot attributes of the stimulus: Instead of looking at the chocolate as a tasty flavorful treat look at it as a brown square, wrapped in paper. By focusing your attention on the on the cool attributes of a stimulus, we can decrease its appeal.

What about all that talk we hear about willpower being a limited resource, the mysterious "ego energy" - whatever that is - being "depleted" fast dragging your willpower along with it (which you can apparently restore with the help of glucose) and the oft-quoted generalization that "willpower is like a muscle"? Mischel wisely ignores such half-baked and sound bite oriented interpretation of research data by Baumeister and associates and gently points to the work done by Carol Dweck of Stanford University, which suggests self-control is not a limited resource and one's mindset can affect one's level of self-control.

While the book summarizes relevant research leading to its conclusions, it is much more than that. It is part a self-help book and part a look back at the work of an eminent psychologist who, at 84 years age, has chosen to share his wisdom gained through a lifetime of research in his first-ever nonacademic book. A man with nothing prove after 55 years in the academe and over 200 publications to his credit, Walter Mischel wears his wisdom lightly. He says in the introduction that he imagined himself "having a leisurely conversation with you, the reader". What a conversation it is!
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Dr. Walter Mischel administered "The Marshmallow Test," to young children at Standford University's Bing Nursery School in the 1960s. This study showed that even four and five year olds are capable of delaying gratification. What no one could have predicted is that many children who successfully resisted eating a tempting treat (in order to receive a greater reward later) carried this trait with them into later life. In this work of non-fiction, Mischel, who has a PhD in clinical psychology and has taught at Harvard, Stanford, and Columbia University, explores the concept of self-control in depth and explains how we can use cognitive skills to cool down our "hot impulses." By doing so, we may empower ourselves to make more constructive decisions.

Mischel draws on decades of studies that shed light on "who we are; what we can be; how our minds work; how we can--and can't--control our impulses, emotions, and dispositions; how we can change; and how we can raise and educate our children." The author asks: Can we reduce the number of school dropouts? Stick to weight-loss and exercise regimens? Save more for our retirement? Create educational programs that will build character and help our kids succeed in their professional and personal lives? Unfortunately, helping people do the right thing (provided we even know what the right thing is) is not easy; many of us procrastinate, rationalize, and have difficulty staying motivated. Common sense is uncommon, and few people are consistently prudent in every area of their lives. However, trying to use proper cognitive skills to achieve important goals often pays rich dividends

The book's conversational style, humane and compassionate message, and entertaining anecdotes make it a pleasure to read. Dr. Mischel does not talk down to us as he addresses questions that many people are curious about, such as "Is self-control prewired?" Although he does not presume to have all the answers--after all, our knowledge of how the human mind works is far from complete--Mischel gives us the benefit of years of experience at looking into the practical implications (positive and negative) of impulse control. By keeping our emotions from always getting the better of us--by employing "strategies and insights, as well as goals and motivation"--Mischel suggests that we are more likely to live happier, healthier, and more fulfilling lives.
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on October 5, 2014
Mischel is a gifted researcher and writer. His book masterfully summarizes a long line of research on self-control and motivation that, as a school psychologist, I have been fascinated with for some time. Thankfully, Mischel is able to step outside the academic stodginess of research articles to tell the stories behind them. However, I think many readers will be disappointed by Mischel's discussion of the implications of this research because he ultimately ends with what I would call "evidence-based platitudes." His recommendations for helping children develop self-control consist of strategies that virtually every reader would have presupposed. Namely, reward effort (not outcomes), be consistent, and be a good role model. If you are looking for a life-altering read, these "insights" are likely to disappoint (judging from the more critical reviews here on Amazon).

But the reason I give the book three stars (despite the engaging writing) is that in several sections throughout the book Mischel seems to suggest that research-informed self-control training can only be found in programs like KIPP charter schools. In truth, these insights have been discussed in the educational literature for a very long time, and I sincerely doubt that there is a teacher education program anywhere that does not train these strategies. The implementation, however, varies as a function of local resources and parent support (two things that KIPP definitely has going for it). In another example, Mischel highlights a specific study on computer-based cognitive training, even though meta-analyses of this literature suggests that it is, at best, minimally effective in immediate, near-transfer learning tasks (no benefit for delayed, near- or far-transfer tasks). I'm sure many readers will read this section and come away with the impression that cognitive training is the wave of the future (it's not).

In short, Mischel relies heavily on anecdotes to tell his stories, and the selection of these anecdotes inescapably creates subtle and unfortunate spin that folks unfamiliar with the literature could easily misinterpret.
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on September 25, 2014
This could become one of the more influential books in the world of self-improvement because it has the familiarity of the famous Marshmallow Test (search on YouTube if you'd like) that shows kids doing hilarious things to prevent themselves from eating the accursed marshmallow.

However, the book is so much more than that simple test done many decades ago. Walter Mitchell decided to write this book decades after seeing and expounding on the effects of delayed gratification and the ability to exercise self-control and extrapolate that to a higher probability of living a successful life by standard capitalistic standards.

This book delivers concepts I had never heard of that were akin to a light bulb going off and others that I had heard of introduced in ways that helped me grasp the helpful concept all the better. I'm very grateful to Mr. Mitchell for putting this together because it takes something that is funny and familiar, the Marshmallow test, and follows up with a book that could easily change how you react at times when you're decision can carry life-long consequences.

This book is great, I read on average 20-50 books a year and this is a standout. I'm very grateful to have read the book and will likely do so again and again and share this information with my daughter as she goes up and finds herself facing cognitive situation where it's hard to "cool down" and make the slow thinking and better choice.
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on August 3, 2015
I have ADHD and dyslexia, so I'm always interested in these types of books (though it takes me what seems like an eternity to get through a book.)

Mischel does a great job tying in "The Marshmallow Test" example throughout the whole book. The "test" consists of a group of pre-school kids sat into a room by themselves in front of a piece of candy and told to restrain themselves from eating the candy in order to get a bigger reward (2 pieces of candy). The author uses case studies explaining why some children go for the candy on sight, and what makes the children who have self-control tick.

The problem is, the book lacks advice on how to master self-control. There's some common-sense advice sprinkled throughout but it's extremely underwhelming and not what's expected from a book that boasts "how to master self-control".

It's a quick and fun read but it leaves one expecting more. 3.5/5.
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on December 23, 2014
This book was published in September 2014 and probably is going to become the 'read' for 2015. Walter Mishel is the originator of the actual Marshmallow test and goes into some detail about the study he carried out at Stanford and also the corroborating work he and his colleagues have done in other locations. I am interested in the subject of emotional intelligence and the delayed self-gratification of the marshmallow test is expounded by Goleman in his book as the sine qua non of emotional intelligence.

However that is not why you should read this book. Mischel covers a lot of the scientific research done since actual marshmallow test in a number of areas answering such questions as:
Why does Cognitive Behaviour theory work and psychoanalysis does not?
How strong is your Psychological Immune System?
Why do Smart People (eg Bill Clinton, TIger Woods) Act Stupid?
and many more other topics such as Executive Function and Willpower Fatigue.

It was this further work that I found interesting and it has not really been covered in the popular science books. Reading this book will enable you leapfrog your understanding of how the mind works.
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on January 4, 2015
Very disappointed in this book. I thought it was actually going to explain "how to" master self-control over eating rather than just basically being a case study the author worked on. It wasn't any help to those of us looking for assistance. Some interesting info but after the 1st couple chapters there wasn't really any reason to read the entire book. I did anyway because I kept hoping I would learn some techniques (which is why I bought the book in the first place.) But other than an "if-then" pointer, I didn't get much more out of reading it.
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on October 2, 2014
This is a fascinating read from start to finish – Dr. Mischel brings you into the science behind basic everyday behavior and makes you think about yourself and the world around you in a whole new way. One of the most interesting parts for me was the idea that people have the capacity to change things like their ability at self-control, and that there are ways parents can help their kids with those issues too. I hope our educators, community and business leaders and public officials read this book – there’s information here that would help improve things in all of those areas.
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on January 14, 2016
Walter Mischel, the author of this fascinating book, is a 84 year old professor at Columbia University. Mischel became known at the end of the 1960s, mainly through his publications about two topics. The first topic was the degree to which situations influence human behavior. He did research which showed that the idea that people have stable personality traits which cause us to behave consistently over many situations is largely a myth. Instead, he demonstrated, we tend to behave quite differently in different contexts. Thus, characteristics of situations have a significant influence on how we behave.

The second topic was self-control. Together with colleagues he did much research into the causes and consequences of self-control, in particular with regard to how children manage to delay gratification. The series of experiments which these researchers did have become know under the popular name of the Marshmallow test, hence the book title.

The book begins with a details description of the marshmallow experiments. Mischel shows how the ability of children to delay gratification and resist temptation has great implications for how their lives proceed. Children who were more able to delay gratification, on average had more successful and happier lives than children who were worse a delay gratification.

Mischel emphasizes that this willpower is not a predetermined and fixed characteristic of people but a learnable skill. He explains that through relatively easy and learnable techniques we can learn to not respond in an emotional and uncontrolled manner but in a wise and controlled manner.

In case you should wonder, Mischel did not get stuck in the '60s and '70s at all. The book proves that he remained very involved and up-to-date in current research in psychology and neuroscience.
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on October 7, 2014
Although Dr. Mischel is certainly not the first to write a an accessible book based on his renowned "marshmallow studies" (many others have), as the originator of the ground-breaking research, he does a uniquely masterful job of illustrating the nuances of---exactly what is not at all obvious about---human self-control mechanisms that have been discovered in decades of his own and related work. Those reviewers who have dismissed this book as presenting scientific studies and their implications that we've all heard of before completely miss the mark. Dr. Mischel's work is in fact so important and relevant in so many ways that his early delay of gratification studies have permeated popular culture. What is presented here is all that has come and what remains to be done to realize the full benefit of that work with respect to our own ability to master self-control.
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