This is a science-based book written for the intellectually ambitious public. The title is based on tests of self-control of five-year-old children who were offered a choice of a single marshmallow, sitting in front of them on a table, to be eaten immediately, or two marshmallows if they could wait for a few minutes. They were left alone and watched through a one-way window, to see how they would cope with their anxiety. Some kids pushed the marshmallow to the opposite side of the table; some turned away; some distracted themselves with play; one secretly ate the insides of the Oreo-cookies that were an occasional stand-in for marshmallows, and carefully returned them to their original positions.
The experiments in The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control, by Walter Mischel began in 1982, and the kids were observed for years to see how they did as students. Those who were scored most successful at putting off gratification of these short-term desires later scored best on college SAT entrance exams. Somehow, these sophisticated scientists spun that fixed observation of early behavior predicting later behavior and came to the conclusion that everyone can control their own destiny … If they wanted to. Somehow that seemed like a cheat, because what control over their environment and future relationship to the world does a five-year-old have? People are greatly affected by their inherited DNA, but they can greatly alter how that DNA heritage interacts with their personal learning to create the habitual interactions with their adult environment. However, a kid has no idea of what that much later environment will be, and so the social environment that he grows up immersed within becomes the dominant factor in how he develops his DNA’s potential. The book concluding sentence is, “Would you like to?”
To me the lesson of this book is that kids should be exposed early to adult success stories of people who did worthwhile things. Then when they choose what they want to do their path to that goal becomes clear. A kid seeing the local drug dealer is driving the flashiest car will want to be like him, or if he sees a public speaker, or musician swaying crowds, he will want to be like him, and so on with any activity that requires developing certain skills. The book ends with, “I think, therefore I can change what I am.” That is a reasonable conclusion, but the kid, or adult, must have a clear idea of what changes are necessary. People need clear goals.
One disappointment for me was the intentional ignoring of Classic Greco-Roman philosophy, especially that of Stoicism, because the conclusions about behavior and the shaping of our behavior that Mischel comes to were covered two thousand years ago by the Stoics. Also, rather than giving abstract suggestions of how we might better guide our future behavior the Stoics develop specific techniques, and theirs were based on hundreds of years of personal experience. The new methods are scientific, and come up with more concrete data, but the modern suggestions are thin abstractions.