In the 1960s, Mischel and colleagues at Stanford launched a series of 
delayed-gratification experiments with young children using a method that later 
came to be known as “the marshmallow test.”  A researcher whom the child knew 
and trusted, after playing some fun games together, suggested playing a 
“waiting game.”  The researcher explained that the child could have either one 
or two of the highly attractive treats the child had chosen and was facing 
(marshmallows, cookies, pretzels)--depending on how long the child waited for 
them after the researcher left the room.  The game was: at any time the child 
could ring a bell, and the researcher would come back immediately  and the 
child could have one treat.  To practice, the researcher left the room, the 
child rang the bell and the researcher came right back, saying, “You see, you 
brought me back.  Now if you wait for me to come back by myself without ringing 
the bell or starting to eat a treat you can have both of them!!”  The wait 
might be as long as 15 or 20 minutes.  (About one third made it that far.)
The kids varied widely in how long they could stand it before ringing the bell. 
 Mischel emphasizes that the focus of the research was to identify the specific 
cognitive strategies and mental mechanisms, as well as the developmental 
changes, that make delay of gratification possible--not to “test” or pigeonhole 
children.  Between the ages of 4 and 6 years, for example, the older kids could 
delay their gratification longer, apparently as the impulse-overriding 
“executive function” of their maturing brains kicked in.  And in some 
conditions it was easy for the children to wait, while under other conditions 
it was very difficult.  The research sought to identify the cognitive skills 
that underlie willpower and long-term thinking and how they can be enhanced..
Longitudinal studies of the tested children suggested that something profound 
was going on.  By the time they were adolescents, the kids who had been able to 
hold out longer for the bigger reward in some conditions were also likelier to 
have higher SAT scores, to function better socially, and to manage temptation 
and stress better.  On into their adulthood, they were less likely to show 
extreme aggression, less likely to over-react if they became anxious about 
social rejection, and less likely to become obese.  For the kids who did not 
hold out well and took the quick reward, Mischell said the findings suggested 
that “the inability to delay gratification can have quite serious potential 
negative effects.”  (Mischel cautions that the longitudinal results are only 
correlations that describe group findings and do not allow accurate predictions 
for individual children.)
Can “delay ability” be trained?  Mischel thinks it can, if we understand how 
our mind works.  He and colleagues postulated a “Hot System” and a “Cool 
System” in the brain.  (They are similar to Daniel Kahneman’s “System 1” and 
“System 2” in his book Thinking Fast and Slow.)  The Hot System (Go!) is: 
emotional, simple, reflexive, fast, and centered in the amygdala.  It develops 
early in the child and is exacerbated by stress.  The Cool System (Know), on 
the other hand, is: cognitive rather than emotional, complex, reflective, slow, 
and centered in the frontal lobes and hippocampus.  It develops later in the 
child and is made weaker by stress.  In the Hot System the stimulus controls 
us; in the Cool System we control the stimulus.  
You can chill a hot object of desire by representing it to yourself in Cool, 
abstract terms.  Don’t think of the marshmallow as yummy and chewy; imagine it 
as round and white like a cotton ball.  One little girl became patient by 
pretending she was looking at a picture of a marshmallow and “put a frame 
around it” in her head.  “You can’t eat a picture,” she explained.  (Girls were 
better at handling temptation than boys.)
While coolly defusing a temptation, you can also make Hot the delayed 
consequences of yielding to it.  Mischel was a three-pack-a-day smoker ignoring 
all warnings about cancer until one day he saw a man on a gurney in Stanford 
Hospital.  “His head was shaved, with little green X’x, and his chest was bare, 
with little green X’s.”  A nurse told him the X’s were for where the radiation 
would be targeted.  “I couldn’t shake the image.  It made hot the delayed 
consequences of my smoking.”  Mischel kept that image alive in his mind while 
reframing his cigarettes as sources of poison instead of relief, and he quit.
“If you don’t know how to delay gratification,” he said, “you don’t have a 
choice.  If you do know how, you have a choice.”
                                                —Stewart Brand <>

[A linkable, illustrated version of this summary is on Medium 
   The audio--and soon video—of the talk is at the Long Now Seminars site 
  Mischel’s book on the subject is The Marshmallow Test 
 Mastering Self-Control.]
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