Who would of thought that your life’s academic research would be reduced to waiting for a delightful, spongey, sugary treat? Last night I chaired Walter Mischel’s book talk at the Bristol Festival of Ideas. Unless you have been living in a cupboard for the last 10 years, Mischel is internationally famous for the marshallow test he devised back in the 1960s. He used it to demonstrate the difficulty that young children have in resisting temptation when told that they can have one marshmallow now but if they wait, they can have two. Not only did he reveal that delay of gratification based on how long they wait predicts social adjustment and school achievement but it is also correlated with adult drug abuse some twenty years later.
The so-called marshmallow test is one of the few psychological phenomena that have entered popular mainstream culture along with Milgram’s shocking studies and Zimbardo’s prison studies (though the later is highly contested). Only last year, the confectionary company Haribo ran an ad campaign featuring adults’ inability to resist their sweets.
At 84, Mischel is still a formidable force with an intellect to match. He started off with some of the original videos of children filmed in South America doing the test in the 1980s (he didn’t have access to video recordings back in the 1960s) and asked us not to take pictures or record the films as he was sure that some of the children showing impulsive behaviour may now be heads of state. He explained how he had developed his own technique to quit his heavy smoking habit and that he was still an impulsive individual. His book is full of sound advice and techniques for avoiding temptation and showed data on the power of simply teaching children to count to 10 to control their “hot” drives.
As I said in the question session, I found this re-assuring as a researcher looking at inhibitory control as I too, am known to have impulse issues. Everything was going fine until someone asked him about trust. Recent studies have shown that an alternative interpretation for the link between weak self-control and poor socio-economic environments was that children did not trust the experimenter that they would be rewarded by waiting. They had grown up in environment it was better to take what you can now rather than hope for something better.
At this suggestion, the mild-mannered professor became quite agitated and angry because these studies had knowingly ignored the fact that Mischel had always insured that children fully understood that the experimenter could be trusted. I think the social trust thing is important but I must say the audience was surprised by Walter’s reaction to the question. To be fair, if your life’s work has been unfairly challenged then his reaction was understandable though I do think the new work has acknowledged that there are a variety of factors that contribute to delayed gratification. In any event, after Walter answered, I suggested that he might want to count to 10 before answering such questions in future which got a big laugh.
Anyway, I met a hero of mine.