The Marshmallow Test

Why self-control is the engine of success

Walter Mischel

An exemplar of succinct and valuable writing.

From the “Don’t Eat the Marshmallow!” iconic T-shirts, to the remarkable success of the Sesame Street television series, to the scientific “willpower-fatigue” interpretation of famous-people scandals (Tiger Wood, president Bill Clinton, etc.), Marshmallow has become a symbol of willpower and grit. Why it earns so much attention?

The original study starts with a marshmallow shown to pre-school children to test if they can resist their temptation and wait for a bigger reward has energized a series of similar studies. Scientists in the field of delayed gratification have shown a correlation between the ability to delay gratification and build a successful and satisfying career.

A Marshmallow test at an early age, however, does not firmly define who we are. Without assistance from parents and society (nurture), this biological trace of a gene (nature) might persist and trigger similar behaviors on a larger scale without the subject’s awareness. Kids born by parents who suffer from mental disorders, kids born in an unsecured surrounding, or kids born in poverty with constant distress are naturally inclined to get one reward before another “might” come. The book, I believe, discusses some urgent and important questions to improve the educational system, which constructs the footing ground for all children to grow with all their true potentials.

One thing that I learned specifically from this book is that willpower is not only malleable but also acts differently in different situations. The lie about his sex scandal with his intern does not confirm President Clinton’s loyalty to his country. Top CEOs might show grit and determination most of the time, but that does not translate into absolute consistency of strong will. The typical character and trait of a person show the likelihood, and it is not fixed!

The self-distancing is a critical lesson I learned from The Marshmallow Test to encounter stresses. The theory sometimes is obvious, but knowing how to apply it definitely requires learning. The bottom line is, “Learn to be a fly.”

Spring 2021

January 16, 2021, 3:00:00 PM


psychology, self-help, socialscience


The Marshmallow Test