Notes & Quotes: The Marshmallow Test by Walter Mischel

The following are my favorite quotes from Walter Mischel's The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self Control.
  1. The ability to delay immediate gratification for the sake of future consequences is an acquirable cognitive skill.
  2. Children who just couldn't wait when cued to think "hot" about what they wanted right now could easily wait when cued to think "cool" about it. 
  3. We are less likely to delay gratification when we feel sad or bad.
  4. The marshmallow experiments convinced me that if people can change how they mentally represent a stimulus, they can exert self-control and escape from being victims of the hot stimuli that have come to control their behavior.
  5. The hot system gives life its emotional zest.  It motivates preschoolers to want two marshmallows, but it also makes it hard for them to endure the wait.
  6. High stress activates the hot system.
  7. When dealing with temptations, one way to momentarily escape the hot system is to imagine how someone else would behave.  It's easier to use the cool system when hot choices for others rather than for oneself.
  8. How lovingly and caringly infants are nurtured, or how cruelly and coldly they are neglected or abused, is inscribed in their brains and changes who they become.  It is critical to keep infants' stress levels from becoming chronically activated and to promote the formation of close, warm attachments so the babies feel secure and safe.
  9. With practice, the desired action of an implementation plan becomes initiated automatically when the relevant situational cues occur.
  10. Beginning in early childhood, far too many people live in untrustworthy, unreliable worlds in which promises for delayed larger rewards are made but never kept.  Given this history, it makes little sense to wait rather than grab whatever is at hand.
  11. Immediate rewards activate the hot, automatic, reflexive, unconscious limbic system, which pays little attention to delayed consequences.  It wants what it wants immediately and steeply reduces or "discounts" the value of any rewards that are delayed.  It is driven by the sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch of the object of desire.
  12. The emotional behavior of children continuously influences that of their caregivers, and vice versa, escalating into more pleasure on one end of the continuum and more distress on the other.
  13. Genetic endowment is an important determinant of behavior.  Just as important, however, is the maternal environment early in life.  It has a powerful impact on how those genes function.
  14. The dull rats put into the enriched environments became significantly brighter, and the bright ones stuck in the impoverished life space got duller, showing a significant decline in their performance.  The environment dramatically changed the expression of a cognitive ability that was generated through selective breeding to create rats as genetically bright or dull as their genes could possibly make them.
  15. My grandmother would have liked him.  As she used to tell everybody, the magical ingredient in making an exceptionally successful life is what she called sitzfleisch.  She meant sitting on your behind and putting in the huge effort need to get the job done.
  16. It is both nature and nurture, not in opposition but influencing each other reciprocally as their boundaries blur.  How a person interacts with that world of opportunities and constraints drive the life that unfolds.
  17. Each child who waited successfully [for two marshmallows] had a distinctive methodology for self-control, but they are shared three features of EF: First, they had to remember and actively keep in mind their chosen goal and the contingency ("If I eat the one now, I don't get the two later").  Second, they had to monitor their progress toward their goal and make the necessary corrections by shifting their attention and cognitions flexibly between goal-oriented thoughts and temptation-reducing techniques.  Third, they had to inhibit impulsive responses -- like thinking about how appealing the temptations were or reaching out to touch them -- that would prevent them from attaining their goal.
  18. Psychologist Charles Carver and his colleagues showed that when optimists have coronary bypass surgery, they recover more quickly than pessimists do.
  19. "It is the combination of reasonable talent and the ability to keep going in the face of defeat that leads to success... What you need to know about someone is whether they will keep going when get frustrating." Martin Seligman
  20. Because optimists have higher overall expectations of success, they are more willing to delay gratification, even when it is difficult to do so.
  21. Those who started with low generalized expectations began as if they had already failed at the task.
  22. People who felt more disconnected from their future selves -- measured by little overlap in their circles for the present self and future self -- were more apt to tolerate unethical business decisions.
  23. At first it is effortful, but in time it becomes automatic.
  24. When facing stress, whether medical or social, "monitors" generally do better when they are told more, and "blunters" do better when they are told less.
  25. The more people self-distanced, the more quickly their blood pressure returned to their typically healthy baseline levels.
  26. If we have delay ability and use it, we are better protected from our personal vulnerabilities -- such as a predisposition to gain unwanted weight, become angry, feel hurt and rejected, and so on -- and can live with these predispositions more constructively.
  27. They can make these strategies automatic rather than effortful if they develop and practice If-Then implementation plans that connect their hot triggers and internal cues to their self-control strategies.
  28. Poor childhood self-control significantly predicted negative adult outcomes: worse health, more financial troubles, and more crimes committed.
  29. David G Myers: In one College Board survey of 829,000 high school seniors, zero percent rated themselves below average in "ability to get along with others," 60 percent rated themselves in the top 10 percent, and 25 percent rated themselves in the top 1 percent.  Compared to our average peer, most of us fancy ourselves as more intelligent, better looking, less prejudiced, more ethical, healthier, and likely to live longer.
  30. Positive self-affirming mental states, including positive illusions (as long as they are not extreme distortions of reality), enhance healthier physiological and neuroendocrine functioning and lead to lower stress levels.  The realists who perceive themselves more accurately experience lower self-esteem and more depression, and they are generally less mentally and physically healthy.
  31. Perhaps the depressed actually are less socially skillful and therefore are perceived more negatively both by other people who observe them and by themselves.
  32. The depressive patients simply did not see themselves through the rose-colored glasses that the others used when evaluating themselves.
  33. We see others accurately, but we wear rose-colored glasses when we rate ourselves, if we are fortunate enough to not be depressed.  In fact, this kind of inflation in self-evaluation may be what helps protect most people from being depressed.
  34. Asked about the probability of success for "any business like yours," one-third of American entrepreneurs said their chance of failing was zero.  In fact, only about 35% of such businesses in the United States survive for five years.
  35. Physicians who had been "completely certain" of their diagnosis turned out to be wrong 40% of the time.
  36. A similar lack of validity for expert predictions made in this manner has been shown to be the rule, whether in long-term forecasting for the stock market, the behavior of psychiatric patients, the success of business enterprises, or virtually any other temporally distant outcome, as fully documented in Kahneman's 2011 book Thinking, Fast and Slow.
  37. The psychological immune system protects us from feeling too bad when our predictions fail, but it can also keep us clinging to beliefs in the face of evidence that persistently contradicts them, leading us to make mistakes that have high costs.
  38. Once you know the If stimuli and situations that trigger behaviors that you want to modify, you are positioned to change how you appraise and react to them.
  39. Engaging in self-control at Time 1 reduced self-control at Time 2, which immediately followed Time 1.  This was true no matter which act of self-control the students were instructed to perform.
  40. At Stanford University, Carol Dweck and her colleagues found that those who believed that their stamina fueled itself after tough mental exertion did not show diminished self-control after a depleting experience.  In contrast, those who believed that their energy was depleted after a strenuous experience did show diminished self-control and had to rest to refuel.
  41. If you want your children to adopt high self-reward standards, it's a good idea to guide them to adopt those standards and also model them in your own behavior.  If you aren't consistent and are tough on your children but lenient on yourself, there is a good chance they'll adopt the self-reward standards you modeled, not the ones you imposed on them.
  42. The normal adult and aging brain can benefit from relatively simple interventions to enhance EF.  Two of the most notable are physical exercise, even in moderate amounts and over short time periods, and virtually anything that minimizes loneliness.
  43. Leading scientists who worry about the effects of toxic stress on the infant's brain and on subsequent susceptibility to mental and physical illness note that those who are lowest in socioeconomic status have greater morbidity and mortality for diverse diseases and suffer from what has been named the "biology of disadvantage," or the physiological and psychological consequences of living under chronic stress, beginning at conception.
  44. If we feel regret about our self-control failures, it will probably be fleeting, because our psychological immune system is so good at protecting and defending us, rationalizing our lack of self-control, and not letting us feel bad about ourselves for long.  That makes it even more unlikely that we will learn to behave differently in the future.
  45. Vicious cycle: increased stress --> hot system dominance --> negative emotions --> long-term distress --> deepening depression --> loss of control --> chronic stress --> increasingly toxic psychological and biological consequences --> increased stress.
  46. The shift from self-immersion to self-distancing significantly reduces psychological and biological distress and lets us regain better control of our thoughts and feelings.
  47. The best answer to the "What can we do to help our children?" question is to model what you would like them to become.
  48. Self-control skills are essential for pursuing our goals successfully, but it is the goals themselves that give us direction and motivation.  They are important determinants of life satisfaction, and those we select early in life have striking effects both on the later goals that we reach and the satisfaction we feel about our lives.
  49. We do not come into the world with a bundle of fixed, stable traits that determine who we become.  We develop in continuous interactions with our social and biological environments.