Recommended Read: “The Marshmallow Test” By Walter Mischel

LDS general authority Dieter F. Uchtdorf referenced the self-control studies described in The Marshmallow Test in his talk on patience at a session of General Conference several years ago. When I found out the researcher, Walter Mischel, wrote a book, I was eager to add the audio version to my library and delve into more of the details.

The Marshmallow Test involves the debate of nature vs. nurture in shaping who we are and what we become. How much of our behavior and abilities is driven by pre-wired traits or environmentally imposed conditions, and how does self-control play into our success? Why do some who are wildly successful in the public sphere fail to carry that level of discipline and impulse regulation to other aspects of their lives? Further, how can we take a more active approach as a society to prevent delinquency and help individuals who struggle with various impulse-control or mental illness related issues, and how do we raise children who thrive and give back to their communities in their chosen pursuits?

Children appear to develop some blend of two philosophies about their abilities at a young age. They believe that they are good at something because they were born that way, or because external factors converged in their favor (“I’m doing a good job coloring in the lines today because this is a good crayon”). Or they believe that they can become good at something if they work at it and learn how. This book takes into account that environment and genetic predisposition–which are largely outside an individual’s control–play a vital role in childhood development, as well as shaping our personal attitudes and outlook on life from an early age. What we believe about ourselves, our needs, and our abilities has a major impact on what we do.

As sophisticated, socially cooperative creatures, we evolved a primal hot system for survival, and a cognitive cool system for handling long-term social and environmental complexities. The impulsive hot system gives us the adrenaline rush we need to escape predators, rescue our kin, or defend ourselves from others who want to steal from us or cause us harm. We snag food that tastes good when calories might be scarce, we pursue sex when we’re lonely or eager (a mechanism for gratification and passing on our genes), and we seek immediate relief for symptoms of pain rather than treating root causes, and so forth. The cool system gives us the ability to self-distract and distance ourselves from these impulses, to frame them in a broader, strategic, rational context.

Mischel suggests that self-control skills are malleable. His observations bolster a school of thought in which most people can learn greater mastery and rewire their thinking in many areas, including relationships, overcoming addictions, focusing at school, and respecting the laws, rights, and dignities of others. This is given that they have a desire to learn or to change.

Balancing the hot and cool systems is also vital to our well-being and success. Engaging the cool system too much can deprive us of zest and motivation, while an easily triggered hot system can lead to rash decision making and physical aliments such as elevated blood pressure. Either can engender anti-social and self-destructive behavior. Being able to put off immediate gratification for greater future rewards also involves trust. If we do not trust that someone is going to come through on future promises, or that a delay in what is immediately available to us is to our benefit, it becomes reasonably impractical to wait to take advantage of some opportunities.

I love this book because Mischel’s research and conclusions ring true to me, and to my own world views on life, biology, and psychology. I highly recommend it. While we don’t get to pick many of our challenges in life, and we can’t control everything we feel, everything the world tell us about ourselves, or the way others respond to us, we can control what we think and do about it. We have the power to make our own choices and to change our minds, and we have a huge impact on how others perceive their own abilities and self-worth through our words and actions. We will grow the more we reach out to each other in constructive ways and strive to exercise our inherent capacity to learn.

You can listen to The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control here on Audible:

Or buy it here on Amazon: