A memoir of gratification: Desire delayed

The following is an excerpt from my first book review in The Economist:

Walter Mischel on the test that became his life’s work

Oct 11th 2014 | From the print edition

The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control. By Walter Mischel. Little, Brown & Company; 326 pages; $29. Bantam; £20 Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk

IN THE 1960s Walter Mischel, then an up-and-coming researcher in psychology, devised a simple but ingenious experiment to study delayed gratification. It is now famously known as the marshmallow test. In a sparsely furnished room Mr Mischel presented a group of children aged four and five from Stanford University’s Bing Nursery School with a difficult challenge. They were left alone with a treat of their choosing, such as a marshmallow or a biscuit. They could help themselves at once, or receive a larger reward (two marshmallows or biscuits) if they managed to wait for up to 20 minutes.

Mr Mischel, now of Columbia University, reveals in his first non-academic book, “The Marshmallow Test”, that the purpose of the study was to look at the methods children use to delay gratification—not to measure how well they did it. He admits now that he did not expect that the time they managed to wait “would predict anything worth knowing about their later years”. But after his daughters, who had attended the Bing Nursery, told him years later about how their friends from pre-school were doing, Mr Mischel noticed that those who did well socially and academically tended to be those who had waited longest in the test.

He went on to survey many of the 550-or-so children who were tested between 1968 and 1974. To his surprise, the longer the five-year-olds had waited for their marshmallows, the higher they scored on standardised tests for college admissions a decade later. The patient children had a lower body-mass index when they grew up, greater psychological well-being, and were less likely to misuse drugs than those who had quickly gobbled up the treat.

Mr Mischel has published more than 200 academic papers, and at the age of 84 is still an active researcher. His book is best read as a memoir of gratification and as a tribute to the many researchers who have explored the field of delayed gratification that he once pioneered. His aim in his new book is to tell the reader about the latest “in the marshmallow work”.

Read the full review here.

Simon Hedlin

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