If nobody had set Walter Mischel’s jacket on fire, The Marshmallow Test might not exist.
In his twenties, while studying toward an advanced degree, he tried social work. One day, he was speaking with troubled kids: “I was sharing and imparting all my fancy insights,” Mischel says, “feeling delighted that I was engaging their interests, when I realized that the kids behind me had set my jacket on fire.” His realization? Studying the concepts was one thing, but a vital world of experience lay outside of academia. “I needed different kinds of training before I started doing clinical work.”
For decades since, Mischel has studied self-control, devising an experiment—known colloquially as “The Marshmallow Test”—to measure willpower in children, many of them as troubled as the kids who lit Mischel’s jacket on fire. For the experiment, Mischel, a professor of psychology at Columbia University, puts a child alone in a room with a small treat—a bit of candy, say. The child knows that if he or she waits just a few minutes, an even better treat will arrive. But how many can wait? And what coping strategies do children use to fight temptation?
The Marshmallow Test, the result of decades of Mischel’s research, stands out for its accessibility. The ideal reader, Mischel says, is “a person who is reasonably well-educated, who has an interest in the area of how the human mind works and how one thinks.” But achieving accessibility was initially difficult for a lifelong academic like Mischel. The Marshmallow Test took six years to write, including three years spent on a draft that Mischel scrapped entirely. Why? “In academia, you learn a very special language, which is jargon to everyone who’s not in your specialty,” he says. “I thought I could write this book simply by spelling out more clearly what the research showed, but when I read what I had written with the eyes of a literature major, not the eyes of a scientist, I realized I had failed to write a scientific version of a Roth story.”
By Roth, Mischel means Philip, whose 1969 comedy Portnoy’s Complaint is a reference point in The Marshmallow Test. In fact, Mischel often uses fiction to examine very real psychological problems. Most interestingly, Mischel cites John Cheever’s 1961 story “The Angel of the Bridge” as providing a potential explanation of how willpower can break down even in cases of individuals with tremendous self-control.
Unsurprisingly, Mischel studied literature and philosophy in college. He saw a connection between art and science, noting that the big questions in psychology are questions that “literature and great art have been trying to address forever. As literature and psychology develop side by side, one finds a connection between issues raised in great literature and some of the most exciting findings about how the mind works.”
Mischel approaches the people in his book—the subjects, children and adult, of the study, as well as his colleagues—with a novelist’s eye, crafting characters with empathy and precision. He finds particular pathos in his portrait of troubled young people in America, often discarded by school officials due to “behavioral problems”—problems, Mischel believes, an understanding of self-control can help solve. In an area like this, Mischel believes that scientific researchers should do more—not to editorialize or advocate, but to “think about the implications of their findings in everyday life, and help policy makers—particularly people who run schools, school curricula, mental health services—to have access to and understanding of the implications of their work.”
But what inspired this sort of drive in Mischel? Like a good literature student, Mischel can read himself as a sort of “character,” careful to point out how his own back-story led him into the research he has spent a lifetime doing. “I was a Hitler refugee,” Mischel says. “Born in Vienna—not far from where Freud was born—I was eight years old when Hitler annexed Austria. I became a refugee, leading the life of somebody very impoverished”—an experience that pushed him to better his own conditions in any way he could. “My burning goal became to get a life again,” he says.
In other words, self-control—the stubborn drive to stick with something until reaching success—means more to Mischel than just a way to quit smoking or lose weight: Self-control is a way to repair the damages that history leaves in one’s soul.
Benjamin Rybeck is events coordinator at Brazos Bookstore in Houston. His fiction and reviews have also appeared in Electric Literature's The Outlet, Ninth Letter, The Rumpus, The Seattle Review, The Texas Observer, and elsewhere.