Don’t Eat This Marshmallow: Cooling the Fever for Self-Control

By Helen Betya RubinsteinDecember 18, 2014

Don’t Eat This Marshmallow: Cooling the Fever for Self-Control

The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control by Walter Mischel

IT’S HARD not to love a book with “marshmallow” in its title, the same way it’s hard not to love an experiment with a marshmallow as its mascot. Not only is the marshmallow in these contexts surprising and strange — a good hook, the beginning of any decent story — but it elicits an easy, uncomplicated longing, the kind of longing we feel whenever we are promised something sweet. “This title’s got so many things I like,” Stephen Colbert teased Walter Mischel on his show: “myself, control, and marshmallows.” Like a real marshmallow, like any of the temptations offered children in his now-famous experiment, Mischel’s new book — The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control — is a trigger for our desire.

But to master self-control, Mischel explains, you must learn to “cool” such “hot” temptations. To sit in front of one marshmallow, patiently waiting to receive another — the childhood behavior that, after his 1960s experiment, so unexpectedly correlated with higher SAT scores, better physical health, and more successful achievement of personal and professional goals — you must pretend the object of your most immediate desire isn’t real. You must learn to resist the allure of the easy, sweet story, the one that serves up a kind of candy to the mind.

The popularity of Mischel’s experiment, and the “remarkable wave of research on self-control” it spawned, is a mark of how pleasing we find the narrative it suggests. And, to his credit, Mischel uses his new book — at once a history of his research and a how-to in marshmallow-resistance — to disprove and complicate the popular misinterpretation of his work: that one’s fate might be written in the ability to resist immediate gratification at age five or four. His experiment was never meant to predict the future; even the term “Marshmallow Test” developed only in the wake of a 2006 New York Times op-ed. Instead, Mischel tells a different, even more alluring story, in which the remarkable plasticity of the brain permits any willing (and willful) reader to use self-control to achieve his desired goals. Dressed up in the language of neuroscience and “cutting-edge” psychological research, Mischel’s marshmallow becomes a symbol of the American dream. If you think you can, think you can — you will.

Mastering self-control, in this paradigm, relies on the development of a “cool” as opposed to “hot” system of thinking, a dichotomy that, in another era, might have been termed reason versus emotion, water against fire, superego over id. In our era, neuroimaging gives these old, potentially too-simple concepts a fresh air of legitimacy: the “deeper,” more “primitive” limbic system places our “hot” and impulsive desires; the more superficial prefrontal cortex situates the slower-to-activate, future-oriented decision-making Mischel calls “cool.” The two systems act together — and, he writes, “as one becomes more active, the other becomes less active.”

This last claim should give a cool-minded reader pause. Mischel’s research has found wide application, from psychotherapies to retirement planning to elementary schools. But the “successes” his self-control strategies are designed to facilitate fall within easily measurable upper-middle-class ideals; he often points to public figures as exemplars of achievement. The book offers some advice on improving relationships — you might, say, train yourself not to snap at your partner’s annoying but harmless habits — but this isn’t in general a book about happiness or well-being. And while Mischel pays far more lip service to the dangers of a joyless and over-controlled life than reviews of his work would make it seem — he reminds the reader several times that “a life with too much [self-control] can be as unfulfilling as one with too little” and “an excess of will can be as self-defeating as its absence” — he doesn’t delve any further than that into the ramifications of a “cool” way of thinking whose potential for automation he repeatedly describes as a blessing, not a curse.

Other writers do, and, in reviewing those that come to mind, it’s hard not to notice that many are women. MacArthur Fellow Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? traces the development of a highly controlled, eminently compliant “false self,” illustrating the devastating emptiness that results from the "true" self's dislocation. She draws liberally, in turn, from Alice Miller’s psychoanalytic classic The Drama of the Gifted Child. Amy Chua, whose uncompromising childrearing techniques have been hotly criticized, by the end of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother actually acknowledges her more disobedient daughter’s wisdom in breaking the rules. And the psychologist Carol Gilligan, who is known for challenging a male-centric psychological canon (and was once Mischel’s student), has spent much of her career studying how girls and women are socialized to systematically — read: automatically ­— deny themselves joy.

Mischel acknowledges the possibility that will-power management might differ between genders. Again, though, his treatment of this matter is disappointingly superficial: “what’s rewarding to boys may be undesired by girls, and vice versa (fire engines, dolls, swords, makeup kits),” he writes at one point. He notes that girls tend to “wait longer” and “are usually rated higher on self-discipline measures than boys” but provides no other hint as to why two of the central experiments in the book were conducted exclusively on boys (including one designed with Gilligan in 1964). And he fails to comment on the fact that every one of his examples of “when smart people act stupid” are of men (Bill Clinton, Sol Wachtler, Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong).

The marshmallow experiment is a foundation for the “character education” now prevalent in some schools, especially charter schools, especially the KIPP Charter School network, to which Mischel devotes many pages; the KIPP system currently aims to develop “grit” and other marshmallow-connected characteristics in nearly sixty thousand students nationwide. (You might spot a KIPP student wearing a “Don’t Eat the Marshmallow!” tee.) The experiment’s influence has even seeped into Sesame Street: rather than gobbling up his cookies, today’s Cookie Monster dances energetically around them, singing, “Me Want It (But Me Wait)” — #controlmeself — as though calling him a monster were not enough of a cue as to how children ought to view his behavior. “Me need control me self, yeah that’s the way to live, and then me functioning like an executive,” Cookie Monster sings in his gruff man’s voice, and it seems perhaps more than a mere irony that the song whose lyrics he’s remixing is one in which women shout a wholly antithetical message: “I Don’t Care (I Love It).”

The benefits of self-regulation, the ability to delay gratification, and other aspects of the brain’s so-called “executive” function shouldn’t be understated; as Mischel argues, unless children develop their “cool” system, they won’t be able to choose when to wait for more marshmallows and when to enjoy one now. Children who grow up in unstable environments tend to delay gratification less easily, not only because of the obvious rationale (why wait for a second marshmallow if you can’t be sure it’ll come?), but also because chronic, hot-system-triggering stress can stunt the development of the prefrontal cortex. Still, it’s hard not to bristle at the rhetorical implications of teaching children at charter schools, most from under-served communities of color, to tame impulses Mischel has called “primitive,” and in this light even Cookie Monster’s jolly #controlmeself takes on a paternalistic cast. It’s hard not to wonder about the losses involved in imbuing self-regulation with such value, hard not to wonder, finally, whether intentionality, self-control, and “grit” might also separate us from our desires, our bodies, and our selves.

The foremost strategy Mischel proposes for not eating the marshmallow is to envision a “frame” around it, rendering it imaginary. When asked why this trick was so helpful, one girl tells him matter-of-factly, “You can’t eat a picture.” But too much picture-making of real temptation amounts to the very sort of dissociation that plagues Bechdel in Are You My Mother? and haunts the female subjects of Gilligan’s The Birth of Pleasure. It’s what Gilligan calls “the splitting of mind” so that the pleasure-loving, pleasure-seeking aspects of the self are suppressed; it’s “the determination at all costs not to see what in another sense one knows.” In other words, it’s precisely the dissociation at the root of deep unhappiness — and also at the root of another of Mischel’s recommended strategies for self-control, which he sums up with a sentiment anyone who has ever dieted might find familiar: “It’s not a treat; it’s poison!” Such “cognitive reappraisal” — Mischel’s term for what enables him to stop eating gluten when he learns he is allergic — works because of the brain’s newly touted malleability, which he presents as the scientific basis for his book’s “can-do” story.

Rewiring the brain, however, means that behaviors that are initially deliberate will eventually become reflexive: “To effectively resist a hot temptation,” Mischel writes, “the inhibitory No! response [has] to replace the hot Go! […] quickly and automatically, like a reflex.” In some of the book’s examples, this inhibitory No is facilitated not through “cool” thinking, either, but through aversive counterconditioning, which replaces a desirable “hot” stimulus with a fear- or disgust-inducing stimulus that is equally “hot.” When Mischel finally quit his three-pack-a-day habit, for instance, he did so by huffing from a coffee can of stale cigarette butts any time he longed to smoke and vividly imagining his own blackened lung. This seems to suggest that, for the highly accomplished individual whose ability to resist temptation has become automatic, it’s not always the case that the hot system has been disabled but that an initially hot appeal has been replaced by an equally hot, repellent fear. It can’t be a coincidence that anorexia — that disease of never eating the marshmallow, of eventually fearing the marshmallow — correlates with many of the same markers of “success” that form the basis of this book’s claim. And if a fear of pleasure shadows self-control, well, maybe perfect self-control is itself a temptation that ought to be “cognitively reappraised” with some fear.

Mischel’s upbeat book feeds our desire for impossible heights of omnipotence and self-mastery. Designed to sell as pop psychology, it comes complete with an impassioned argument in favor of cognitive behavioral therapy over other psychotherapeutic treatments (about himself, Mischel once said, “I don’t do melancholy”), nifty factoids (did you know taking aspirin can dull an emotional ache?), and experiments that occasionally border on the absurd (“when people were primed to believe that they would be energized by controlling their facial expressions […] they performed better on the later task of squeezing a handgrip”). Despite the book’s repetitive and sometimes tangled structure, Mischel’s good-natured personality shines through, too. Like the story he tells, he’s hard not to like. But it’s disturbing to see a lion of the psychological academy write about human behavior in such a glancing way, disturbing to see how superficially he extrapolates from real-life experience to his work, and disturbing to see how eagerly readers and reviewers have lapped it all up. Mischel is right when he concludes that “by changing how we think, we can change what we feel, do, and become.” But to devalue the “hot” impulses at the self’s core is to dumb ourselves down and to make ourselves sad. Before we gobble up Mischel’s marshmallow, we’ve got to cool off.


Helen Rubinstein’s essays have appeared in The Paris Review Daily, The Seneca Review, Slice, Witness, and The New York Times.

LARB Contributor

Helen Betya Rubinstein's writing has appeared in The Kenyon Review, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Paris Review Daily, The New York Times, and elsewhere. 


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