Reading List: The Marshmallow Test

UPDATED: September 24, 2014
PUBLISHED: September 24, 2014

In 1972 psychologist Walter Mischel, then at Stanford University, published the results of his now-iconic (and somewhat controversial) experiment called The Marshmallow Test. Here’s a refresher on it: Looking to understand how willpower develops and manifests, Mischel presented preschoolers with a scenario designed to measure self-control. Each child was given two options: Eat one marshmallow (cookie or pretzel) now, or wait 15 to 20 minutes and score a two-marshmallow payday. Roughly 30 percent of the 3- to 5-year-olds managed to delay gratification. Years later, Mischel discovered that this group seemed to do better in life, and that the individuals in it were more successful and content.

The test findings serve as the book’s jumping-off point. From there, Mischel uses his impressive experience along with others’ related research in the field to explore the nature—and nurture—of willpower. He explains simply and elegantly the complex neural and cognitive components that affect our ability to self-regulate. One of the most critical of these is executive function, a set of cognitive skills and neural mechanisms that “let us exert deliberate, conscious control of thoughts, impulses, actions and emotions.” By understanding what willpower is and isn’t—as well as how different brain systems can either fire up or cool down impulsivity—we can overcome the challenges of everyday life.

In The Marshmallow Test, Mischel provides strategies and insights as well as goals and motivation “to make willpower easier to develop and make persistence rewarding in its own right.”

by Walter Mischel

Little, Brown; $29

Find out more about willpower—the science behind it and how to strengthen it.

Jessica Krampe is the digital managing editor for A graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism, Jessica has worked for news, entertainment, business and lifestyle publications. Outside of the daily grind, she enjoys happy hours, live music and traveling.