Have You Ever?

Picture yourself in a mall, staring at a very expensive product that you really, really want – maybe a piece of clothing from a high-end fashion designer, or a newly released gaming system. You know that if you just wait a couple of months, the hype around this item that you really want will die down, and the price will drop significantly. Do you go with your immediate urge to buy the item right now, or do you listen to the reasonable part of your brain and wait? 

The Answer

Everyone has a “hot” system of thinking and a “cool” system of thinking – the “hot” system makes choices based on your emotions, and these are usually quick, impulsive decisions that only satisfy your short-term desires. Meanwhile, the “cool” system makes choices based on logic, considering all the possible consequences of your actions and making decisions that will benefit you in the long-run. Everyday tests of self-control, like the temptation of an expensive product you want to buy at the mall, will reveal whether a person relies more on their “hot” system of thinking or their “cool” one. If you would rather buy the product immediately at a higher price, you lean more towards the “hot” system, and if you would wait to buy the product a few months later at a lower price, you lean more towards the “cool” system. 

Definition of The Marshmallow Test

The Marshmallow Test was a study conducted by psychologist Walter Mischel in the 1960s and 1970s to explore self-control in a group of children and see whether these children tended towards a “hot” or “cool” system of thinking. 

The Experiment

The Marshmallow Test began with Mischel and his team of researchers placing a plate of treats (usually marshmallows) on a table in an otherwise empty room. Children between the ages of three and five were led into this room one-by-one to be tested individually. Each child was told that the researchers would leave for a few minutes, and if the child could resist eating any of the treats until the researchers returned, they could have two marshmallows. If the child couldn’t resist the treats, they were instructed to ring a bell that would bring the researchers back to the room early, and they would only be allowed to eat one marshmallow. If the researchers were not summoned by the ringing of the bell, they returned to the room after fifteen minutes. 

If a child rang the bell early and wanted to have a marshmallow immediately, they were more reliant on a “hot” system of thinking and were willing to sacrifice a bigger reward in the future (two marshmallows) for a smaller but immediately satisfying reward (one marshmallow). On the flip side, if a child waited until the end of the fifteen minutes, they were more reliant on a “cool” system of thinking and were able to prioritize the bigger long-term reward (two marshmallows) over the smaller, immediate reward (one marshmallow).

Why Care?

In follow-up studies, Mischel surveyed the same children from the original Marshmallow Experiment on how they were doing as adults. Mischel saw that the children who waited longer to receive their marshmallow treats had found greater overall success in terms of higher SAT scores, better health (measured by BMI), and attainment of higher education. Not only that, but the parents of those children who waited longer for their marshmallows were more likely to say that their children planned well for the future and handled stress effectively. 

Even more recently, in 2011, psychologist B. J. Casey reached out to participants of the original Marshmallow Test (who were in their 40s at the time) and asked them to be part of a similar experiment that would re-test their self-control as adults. Casey’s results found that generally, people who behaved impulsively and relied on their “hot” system of thinking as children still behaved in the same way as adults. Similarly, people who were patient and relied on their “cool” system of thinking as children also tended to behave the same way as adults. Please note that although this video shows marshmallows being used in Casey’s adult experiment for ease of comparison, Casey actually used various different objects that would be desirable to adults in his experiments. 

Although the Marshmallow Test seems to imply that impulsivity is an innate ability, there are ways to practice self-control. For example, you can set clear, attainable goals for yourself, consciously monitor and analyze your behaviors, and remove yourself from settings of temptation. By rehearsing these methods and skills, you could potentially increase your self-control. Thus, your current state of impulsiveness or non-impulsiveness is not really a conclusive statement on your future potential.

    Learn More

    1. Gibbs, Nancy. “The EQ Factor.” Time. content.time.com, http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,133181,00.html.
    2. Heshmat, Shahram. “10 Strategies for Developing Self-Control”. Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/science-choice/201703/10-strategies-developing-self-control.
    3. Mischel, Walter. The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control. First edition., Little, Brown and Company, 2014.
    4. Watts, Tyler W., et al. “Revisiting the Marshmallow Test: A Conceptual Replication Investigating Links Between Early Delay of Gratification and Later Outcomes.” Psychological Science, vol. 29, no. 7, 2018, pp. 1159–1177. hollis.harvard.edu, doi:10.1177/0956797618761661.
    5. “‘Willpower’ over the Life Span: Decomposing Self-Regulation.” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, vol. 6, no. 2, Apr. 2011, pp. 252–56. academic.oup.com, doi:10.1093/scan/nsq081.

    Think Further

    1. Would you categorize yourself as a person who uses a more “hot” system of thinking or someone who uses a “cool” one? Give examples of personal choices that you’ve made to support your argument. 
    2. Are there situations where it’s better to rely on a “hot” system of thinking than a “cool” one? Explain your answer.
    3. What character traits or difficulties can you hypothesize that “hot” headed people might have?

    Teacher Resources

    Download Lesson Plan
    Download Worksheet
    View On EdPuzzle
    Sign up for our educators newsletter to learn about new content!
    Educators Newsletter