Book Review: The Marshmallow Test, Mastering Self Control

336 pages

2014

Hardcover $29, eBook $15

 

The Skim

Premise – A simple test determines so much. Is there hope for those of us that flunk it?

Audience – Anyone who simply wants more self discipline.

Author’s Own Words – “In order to understand self-control, and the ability to delay gratification, we need to grasp not only what enables it but also what undoes it.” Walter Mischel

 

A business book bestseller when it hit shelves last year, “The Marshmallow Test” was found in the psychology section of Traverse City bookstore Horizon Books. That fact demonstrates how broad the business book genre has become in the past decade. What today is defined as a business- related book goes beyond CEO biographies, Wall Street investment advice, and start-up business books. Business book or not, “The Marshmallow Test” holds true to its premise that all good things come to those who wait.

Let’s establish from the get-go that author Walter Mischel is an accomplished university researcher. He first developed the much publicized Marshmallow Test in the 1960s, at a Stanford University-run preschool. Researchers presented the children with the option of eating one marshmallow placed on a plate in front of them immediately by ringing a small bell – or, if the children were able to wait 10-20 minutes, they would be awarded with two marshmallows. The testing generally predicted the children’s ability to exercise self control and delay gratification. Over time, those same children grew up and were tracked. It was determined that those who did well on the Marshmallow Test had better social and cognitive development, achieved higher SAT test scores and had better self-worth later in life.

“The Marshmallow Test” also explains why a person may lose their composure in a particular situation, and that it is not an indicator of how they will respond in all situations. The philandering politician, who has the ill-advised affair with an office intern, can still work at a high level in important decision-making situations. In other words, the snapshot collection of small moments that we all judge others by is not an accurate portrayal on how that person deals with situations across a broader spectrum.

Well explained biopsychology helps us understand our reactions to situations that challenge our willpower and desire for instant gratification. This self control is a psychological battle between the “hot” reactive part of the brain that traditionally dealt with primal danger and the “cool” more developed portion of the brain’s frontal lobe that rationalizes situations.

Situations that touch off a hot reaction (or lack of self control) can be quelled by a refined cool system. Techniques that teach one to focus on future ramifications in these situations can be developed over time, reducing the negative consequences of short-term temptations.

Mischel makes it clear that in our early years some of us are better than others at resisting temptation and regulating painful emotions. What gets a bit lost in the initial summary is that willpower skills can be improved significantly. It’s a relief to understand that we (and our children) don’t have to be pigeonholed into any permanently defined categories of behavior.

For most businesses, a premium is placed on hiring employees who can demonstrate self control and discipline in a variety of situations. “The Marshmallow Test” in this context can be a valuable tool for choosing and developing talent.

“The Marshmallow Test” translates mountains of detailed research into relatable information that readers will find both interesting and relevant. For author Mischel, his book is part career retrospective, part self-improvement book. His story of quitting his two-pack a day smoking habit makes the previously laid out research seem more realistic. Like the four-year-old children who are able to exhibit inventive techniques for delaying gratification, “The Marshmallow Test” offers strategies and hope for those with limited self control .

Chris Wendel is an author, commercial lender and business consultant living Traverse City, Michigan. He can be reached at cwendel@sunbearpress.com.

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