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The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control Hardcover – September 23, 2014
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"The discoveries that grew out of the marshmallow studies add up to one of the most insightful research stories in the history of psychology. Whatever it is now, your view of human nature will change profoundly as you read this brilliant book."―Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking Fast and Slow
"A fascinating book. It is such an addictive treat that I had no self-control in reading it, until I understood that I could actually improve my self-control, and from then on I was in marshmallow heaven. Stimulating, fun, clear, lively, and drawn from rigorous studies. It's not only accessible, but very convincing. Seriously, I love it."―Alan Alda, actor, writer, science communication advocate
"This is the book we've all been waiting for."―Angela Lee Duckworth, Associate Professor, Department of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania, and a 2013 MacArthur Foundation Fellow
"This is an amazing - eye-opening, transformative, riveting - book from one of the greatest psychologists of our time. Mischel delivers the powerful message that self-control can be enhanced, and shows us how!"―Carol S. Dweck, Professor of Psychology, Stanford University, author of Mindset
"The Marshmallow Test, a charmingly told scientific story, makes clear the test is not just about youngsters, but is helpful to us all in the marshmallow moments we face through life. Mischel has written a wonderful book, engaging, enlightening, and profound."―Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence and Focus
"This marvelous book is unique, and beautifully written from beginning to end. The range that Walter Mischel covers-from creative cognitive science to neuroscience to genetics-is breathtaking. This speaks for science at its best. Bravo!"―Eric R. Kandel, MD, Winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, University Professor, Department of Neuroscience, Columbia University, author of The Age of Insight and In Search of Memory
"Walter Mischel is one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century, and The Marshmallow Test will make him one of the most influential in this century, too."―Steven Pinker, Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and the author of The Better Angels of Our Nature.
"A fascinating story of a brilliant researcher at work and a recipe for how to change one's life."―Timothy Wilson, Sherrell J. Aston Professor of Psychology, University of Virginia, author of Redirect
"Expansive, eye-opening...All of the anecdotes here, not to mention the entire chapter on practical applications, provide insight into how we can maximize our willpower¿without overextending its potential....To be human is to grapple with the will: this stimulating books encourages us to make mindful decisions."―Publishers Weekly
"Mischel uses his impressive experience along with others' related research in the field to explore the nature-and nurture-of willpower. He explains simply and elegantly the complex neural and cognitive components that affect our ability to self-regulate."―Success
About the Author
Walter Mischel holds the Robert Johnston Niven chair as professor of humane letters in psychology at Columbia University. He is the author of more than two hundred scientific papers as well as the coauthor of Introduction to Personality, now in its eighth edition. He has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and has won the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award of APA and the Grawemeyer Award for Psychology. He lives in New York.
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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!
The problem I have with this book is that the conclusions do not seem convincing, the author constantly qualifies his assessments by saying of course there are cases that do not follow the norm. It also does not get to the root of self-control, it instead assumes the outcome of one test as the baseline. It similarly does not explain the basis of the hot and cool systems, but just takes for granted their fundamentality.
A positive aspect of the book is the conclusion that self control is not innate and can be effectively improved and cultivated throughout one's life. It also shows the enormous and varied ways self control affects one's life. Lastly, It is interesting because it covers a variety of psychological tests that anybody can relate to.
Even if it is not groundbreaking, it is still worth the time to read.
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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Though mostly focussed on children, there is plenty here for adults - and of...Read more