The Marshmallow Test
When 85-year-old Walter Mischel was asked: “What next? What are your plans for the next 5 years?” he didn’t hesitate; he had an answer. And his answer had nothing to do with ramping down, easing out, or anything that looked like retirement. I want to be like that when I’m 85, still lively, engaged, and using my creativity to help make the world a better place.
Last week I listened in on a captivating, live interview with Dr. Walter Mischel conducted by Dr. Ben Dean of MentorCoach .(You can listen to the interview for free at the MentorCoach Website: http://www.mentorcoach.com/mischel/ ) A psychologist known for his research on self-control, Mischel was involved in what is famously known as “the marshmallow test.” The experiment conducted at Stamford in the mid 1960’s gave children a choice: they could have one treat (cookies, candy, marshmallow) right away. Or if they waited until the researcher came back into the room, they could have two treats. Delayed gratification or immediate satisfaction.
Watching how the children passed the time until the researcher came back into the room gave them a lot of information about what skills helped the child delay their gratification. The ones who were able to distract or entertain themselves could wait longer. This experiment became the seedbed of further research on what has become known as executive function.
The children who participated in the study were in school with Mischel’s daughters. Over time he would ask about how their friends were doing, and he began to make informal notes about their successes and failures. This led to a longitudinal study on a sample of the 550 children who had been tested. They discovered a correlation between the children’s capacity to exert self-control and their level of success in life. This showed up in interesting places: in their body mass index at age 32 or in their SAT scores, to name two.
Dr. Mischel has an impressive research career. But what struck me most in Ben’s interview with him was Walter’s compassion and concern for the betterment of the world. He was 8 years old and living in Vienna when the Nazis occupied the city. He told a family story about how when his family was burning papers to keep them from the Nazis, they discovered a document with a gold seal. His grandfather had lived in the US for five years many years before, and had become a US citizen, which the family did not know about. Those papers allowed the family to escape to the US. This narrative of escaping to a new life of freedom formed Dr. Mischel into a person who actively tries to help others become their best.
Walter’s response to Ben’s question “What next” revealed Mischel’s compassion for those who experience the disadvantages of poverty and stress. He said: “My plans really are to see how I can help apply the basic work that I’ve spent my life on in self-regulation and personality…in helping the people who are trying to change what our children are taught in public schools so that we can have the most effective educational programs possible for helping kids who are beginning life at the bottom on that socio-economic divide to make it up that ladder…and to make that ladder out of poverty and stress an accessible ladder…”
He went on to say: “Under conditions of high temptation, high poverty and high stress the hot system (of the brain) is dominant and the cool system begins to shrivel. So the reduction of extreme poverty and of stress is absolutely vital if we are going to have the type of world I think we are all hoping for.”
What kind of world are you hoping for? And what will you be doing when you are 85 to bring that world into being?
Make gladness in the abyss.