A Philosophical Marshmallow

Walter Mischel, Test Marshmallow. O pożytkach płynących z samokontroli, trans. Agnieszka Nowak, Smak Słowa, Sopot 2015


Although the affinities between alchemy and contemporary academic psychology do not go as far as Carl Gustav Jung dreamed more than half a century ago, you can still find unmistakable similarities between the two disciplines. And I do not mean a certain vagueness and arbitrariness of psychological theories and interpretations or their relentless volatility—the history of psychology is, after all, a history of beliefs constantly abolishing each other, and so far none of them has managed to find a permanent place in this very demanding market of ideas. What I mean is the search for the philosophical stone, that is—to use psychological terminology—such a universal principle describing (or determining) the functioning of the human mind so well, that its discovery would provide a key for comprehensive understanding of all (or at least most) processes in the human psyche. Of course, you can’t exclude the possibility that such a principle will eventually be identified—but for the time being the search is going on and the catalogue of potential “ultimate solutions” is constantly swelling. Thus, to mention a few 20th century examples, sexually defined libido was the philosophical stone for Sigmund Freud, for Jung it was collective unconsciousness, for the behaviorists it was external conditioning, for the advocates of biological determinism it was the genes, for Leon Festinger it was the mechanism of reducing cognitive dissonance, while for Walter Mischel it was self-control. His book The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control, published in English in 2014, is on the one hand an attempt at a comprehensive summary of all studies in this field across the last few decades, and on the other hand it is—which proved to be slightly more problematic— an attempt at placing these studies in the contemporary Western cultural context.

Mischel, an American psychologist, professor at Columbia University, has left a permanent mark on the history of contemporary scholarship with a seemingly insignificant experiment conducted in the 1960s with a group of his Ph.D. students. The idea was simple, but also, as it turned out, truly brilliant in its simplicity. Mischel, motivated, as he himself explains, by his frustration resulting from his own numerous weaknesses, including an advanced nicotine addiction (he was a three- packets-a-day smoker) and a fondness for sweets, decided to take up a study of mechanisms of refraining from immediate satisfaction of various more or less destructive desires. And to get to the heart of the matter—to the largest possible extent avoiding any cultural influences and effects of conscious training of willpower—he chose five-year-olds attending the university kindergarten as his experimental group. Then he only had to find a sufficiently intense object of desire. And because, as Mischel repeatedly said, “in those years all kids loved the marshmallows,” he did not have to ponder very long on his selection.

The structure of the experiment involved testing the ability to delay gratification—which is, according to Sigmund Freud, the basic marker of psychological maturity. In the process of socialization, Freud argued, we gradually learn to control our impulses, so it is one of the most important social skills defining our mental health. Mischel and his associates presented the children with the following choice: you can eat one marshmallow now, or wait for half an hour and eat two marshmallows. Although the calculation seems obvious enough, a significant proportion of the children could not resist immediate satisfying of their temptation, despite the fact that a much more satisfying reward was on the horizon. And the ones who could control their drive engaged in all kinds of mental and physical tricks helping them to survive this ordeal.

Conclusions that Mischel drew from his experiment mostly regarded techniques facilitating self-control, especially those involving the change of mental representations of the desired object and diverting attention from the prize. But, as it often happens, it soon turned out that the creators of the marshmallow test identified a significant predictor of how a given individual, capable of self-control or not, would be able to cope with various situations in the future.


It turned out that children who at an early stage were able to delay gratification, fared much better in later life, in secondary school and university. They got better marks, were much better behaved, much more efficiently and successfully achieved their long-term goals, were more flexible in interpersonal situations, more successfully maintained intimate relationships, at also, last but not least, had a lower body mass index (BMI).

Searching for the answers to the question of this mysterious relation between self-control and personal success, Mischel reaches both to contemporary neuroscience, and to other giants of empirical psychology, including experiments by Martin Seligman, a pioneer of the so-called “Positive Psychology,” whose concept of “learned helplessness” has become, by the way, the basis for developing several invasive interrogation techniques used by the CIA in the “war on terror.” But while this part of his book, where he meticulously recounts how the activity of the brain at the moment of making a decision about delaying gratification was observed and registered with the help of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), is a reliable lecture on the achievements of a serious scientific discipline, the interpretations of this data in the context of such events as the financial crisis are much more arbitrary. For Mischel does not stop at a simple description, a kind of neuro-phenomenology often practiced by researchers working in this multidisciplinary field. The prefrontal cortex as a substrate of advanced mental processes—responsible, among other things, for morality and ability to inhibit violent impulses—is for him a clearly insufficient destination. So he looks for the solution to the puzzle further afield.

First he recounts the fascinating argument about the primacy of genes over education (or vice versa) going on in psychology at least since the days of Sigmund Freud. And then—when he proves that in fact it is impossible to indicate the primary factor here, for personality is a complex confluence of biology and environment—he strikes at a certain psychotherapeutic dogma in an interesting way. Criticizing the psychotherapeutic tradition for inadequate and often harmful diagnoses, he points out—relying on empirical experiments—that an excessively controlling mother, an almost unanimously negative figure in contemporary therapeutic currents, is in fact conducive to developing the ability to take a distant look at ourselves, necessary for efficient and successful self-control. Moreover, another therapeutic dogma, namely that the ability to fully experience negative emotions is good for mental health and protects us from destructive neuroticism, also does not find empirical confirmation. On the contrary, individuals who do not focus on negative emotions cope much better with everyday problems. All this leads Mischel to a general praise of positive thinking, of the ability of distracting attention from stressors, of self-confidence, as well as to an apotheosis of self-denial and pulling yourself together when confronted with various difficulties. And here we are only one step away from the (so popular in America) psychology of success, where the main model and hero is the self-made man ignoring hardships, always happy, and enthusiastically building his or her well-being in the teeth of unfavorable external circumstances. In Mischel’s book we now and again find such figures, and he himself points at them as examples proving the accuracy of his conclusions. But a mysterious scratch finally appears on this picture—as it has to appear.


Individuals who scored high in the marshmallow test, when you look at their professional career in the really broad context, for example encompassing the huge financial crisis which hit the United States a few years ago (and which is still taking its toll), have not always proven capable of adequately assessing the situation. On the contrary, convinced of their infallibility (it is a feature of incorrigible optimists, adds Mischel with some fondness), were often unable to accurately predict the potential negative consequences of their moves, and a selfishly conceived profit, the basis of their motivation, repeatedly proved to be a painfully too narrow a perspective. And although Mischel, hoping to understand the failure of the project of optimism and self-control, makes an ample use of the publications of such people as Daniel Kahnemann, where the latter analyses a number of cognitive fallacies to which all “brain users” are prone, this simple reduction of the complex web of economic, social, and political factors to psychology leads to a deeply disappointing result.

For Mischel attempts to interpret the crisis exclusively in terms of some bad decisions taken by self-controlling and optimistic individuals. Under that interpretation, this combination of individual micro-moves, individual cognitive micro-errors, ultimately lead to a gigantic crash, but it was by no means the result of bad economic policy or the system of values intensely promoted by contemporary culture, where individual profit achieved at any cost is put above all else. Completely alien to Mischel is also the point of view developed in Western humane studies at least since the time of Karl Marx, for whom individual biography directly flows from class, economic and cultural conditions, while various ideologies, including various psychological currents, are epiphenomena of specific axiological and political contexts, and therefore they not so much describe reality, but rather (although of course not always) work in the service of some already existing, by no means objective description. This peculiar cognitive constraint—very characteristic for American psychology—is an important drawback of Mischel’s book, although admittedly he is not an analyst of complex social processes, but a neuroscientist. Nevertheless, his position is significant, also in the sense that it is not aware of its own political and ideological affiliations, claiming to be an objective description of the world free from any illusions.

Equally interesting—and also, in a sense, a hostage of this liberal rationalization—is Mischel’s attempt at maintaining a vision of a cohesive, self-directed actor. Although neuroscience to a large extent confirms the suppositions of Freud, regarded as one of the main destructors of Cartesian notions of the mind, Mischel tries to reconcile these two mutually exclusive concepts, looking for such techniques of mental training which would allow for a successful taming of the obvious heterogeneity of our impulses, proclivities and sub-personalities. And so, he on the one hand admits that self-control usually works selectively in a given individual (he quotes many examples of well-known figures who led a double life: fully controlling themselves in one and surrendering to the wildest temptations in the other), but on the other hand he constantly attempts to rescue the homogeneity of the self, looking for methods of training the ability to refrain from immediate gratification, and therefore to recover the unity long lost by the modern self.

So in some sense the marshmallow test proved to be something more than a milestone in the development of contemporary empirical psychology. For in terms of this test—and in terms of its various interpretations—we can read almost all ideological arguments fundamental for late- modern human studies. Therefore we can fairly say that the marshmallow test really is a kind of philosophical stone, but again, far from the sense in which it was understood first by Renaissance alchemists and then by Carl Gustav Jung.

Tomasz Stawiszyński

is a philosopher, columnist, the author of “Skirmishes with Freud. Myths, Temptations and Traps of Psychotherapy” (2013), the author of radio programs devoted to philosophy in Radio TOK FM. He recently launched the website www.stawiszynski.org.

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