The Frontal Cortex

The Secret of Self-Control

I’ve got a new article in the New Yorker this week on the pioneering work of Walter Mischel and the science of delayed gratification:

In the late nineteen-sixties, Carolyn Weisz, a four-year-old with long brown hair, was invited into a “game room” at the Bing Nursery School, on the campus of Stanford University. The room was little more than a large closet, containing a desk and a chair. Carolyn was asked to sit down in the chair and pick a treat from a tray of marshmallows, cookies, and pretzel sticks. Carolyn chose the marshmallow. Although she’s now forty-four, Carolyn still has a weakness for those air-puffed balls of corn syrup and gelatine. “I know I shouldn’t like them,” she says. “But they’re just so delicious!” A researcher then made Carolyn an offer: she could either eat one marshmallow right away or, if she was willing to wait while he stepped out for a few minutes, she could have two marshmallows when he returned. He said that if she rang a bell on the desk while he was away he would come running back, and she could eat one marshmallow but would forfeit the second. Then he left the room.

Although Carolyn has no direct memory of the experiment, and the scientists would not release any information about the subjects, she strongly suspects that she was able to delay gratification. “I’ve always been really good at waiting,” Carolyn told me. “If you give me a challenge or a task, then I’m going to find a way to do it, even if it means not eating my favorite food.” Her mother, Karen Sortino, is still more certain: “Even as a young kid, Carolyn was very patient. I’m sure she would have waited.” But her brother Craig, who also took part in the experiment, displayed less fortitude. Craig, a year older than Carolyn, still remembers the torment of trying to wait. “At a certain point, it must have occurred to me that I was all by myself,” he recalls. “And so I just started taking all the candy.” According to Craig, he was also tested with little plastic toys–he could have a second one if he held out–and he broke into the desk, where he figured there would be additional toys. “I took everything I could,” he says. “I cleaned them out. After that, I noticed the teachers encouraged me to not go into the experiment room anymore.”

I’ll also be participating in an “Ask the Author” web feature, so if you have any questions about marshmallows and the strategic allocation of attention, be sure to let the New Yorker know.


  1. #1 airplane
    May 11, 2009

    I liked the article but what i missed was the fact that good skills in delaying your desires can also work against you. For example if you are anorexic.

  2. #2 The Science Pundit
    May 11, 2009


    The problem with anorexia (from the perspective of delayed gratification–there are plenty of other problems with it) is a distorted view of the future gratification. There is this fantasy land that can be reached by starving oneself. Unfortunately, this fantasy land doesn’t exist. And that’s just an extreme example: I think most of us have “missed opportunities” because we were holding out for something better. The secret, I would venture, is to have a realistic assessment of what the future payoff is and how likely you are to get it.

  3. #3 Jen
    May 11, 2009

    I first heard of the marshmallow test after reading your book, and I’m determined to make delayed gratification and patience an important part of my parenting. It’s not going to be easy.

  4. As far as I remember the ability of delaying your gratification let you predict the succes of a person’s life later, as an adult. Those people are mostly better educated, hard-working and less egoistic. I’m not sure if there was any correlation with the IQ.

    To be honest I have never thought of it as the possible answer to anorexia problem. I was considering the gratification postponing as something positive so I found this other point of view really interesting.

  5. #5 Alastair McAlpine
    May 11, 2009

    I really enjoyed the article and as a father of very persistent children aged 4 and 2.5 it is helpful to acknowledge my instinct which is to teach children to earn something rather than capitulate to the initial self-gratification. It pays off already but the science behind it is more fascinating.

    Having read the book “How we decide” and the impact of dopamine receptors, I also found it compelling to learn of the impact on how people make impulsive decisions. My father has Parkinson’s Disease and during his darkest days he becomes the most irrational and unexplicable. He will insist on doing something even if (a) my mother shouts at him ten times not to do it, (b) if he knows it’s dangerous, like going for long walks without his pills and (c) if he recognises after the fact that what he did is socially unacceptable. The boosted levels of Dopamine effectively appear to have overridden his basic self-control (frontal cortex) with his gut/base desires.

    Since Parkinson’s Disease is primarily treated by drugs which produce Dopamine to compensate for the body’s inability to produce the chemical itself, I can better understand his condition as a result of the work done in that book which has been very helpful in dealing with it.

  6. #6 Emily
    May 11, 2009

    This was an interesting article. I’m curious if there was any kind of control for kids who generally “behave well” when they perceive a figure of authority wants them to do something but who behave differently when truly doing something for themselves.

    This would be insightful for high-achieving academic folks who still struggle with self-control outside of structured work / academia. (e.g. the academic all-star who also has a weight problem)

  7. #7 Lilian Nattel
    May 11, 2009

    I’m not sure it can be taught though it can be moved a bit. Some kids are naturally better at self-gratification, but the kids who aren’t are better at something else. This comes from observation of my kids and myself and sibs–and annecdotes from other parents. It would be interesting to know more about what that kind of self-control associates with.

  8. #8 Judith
    May 11, 2009

    Thanks for another great article that I can use in teaching college psychology!

  9. #9 Mans Shapshak
    May 12, 2009

    One of the best articles I have read. Ever! Fantastic Job!!

  10. #10 working class
    May 13, 2009

    one thing i don’t like about the conclusions people draw from this study, is that it’s some sort innate ability. anyone remember that study showing self-control consumes energy? could it be the kids with low self-control simply had low energy, low blood sugar or something along those lines? could a meal right before the test improve their result?

    the study –

  11. #11 Jun
    May 14, 2009

    Interesting article. Right now a number of neuroscientists are looking into the neuropsychology of will power. Todd Hare and colleagues at Cal Tech recently published their imaging study on vmPFC and DLPFC and self-control. Warren Bickel at Univ of New Mexico is investigating this subject in the context of addiction and using future-discounting model. He also thinks that cognitive training in children should be implemented. Laurence Steinberg at Temple has published some interesting studies on future orientation and delay discounting in children.

  12. #12 Jamba
    May 15, 2009

    Caroline and Marshmallows..
    ..Mutual addiction attracts opposites!

    Great Article
    Very, in a way

  13. #13 Jamba
    May 15, 2009

    Oh and..

    It looks far more complex as it would be in,say
    anyone else’s reality,
    don’t you think so Jonah?

    It’s great anyway!!

  14. #14 Kath
    May 15, 2009

    Teaching our children self control should be one of the most important things in parenting. Look at our society today – immediate self gratification has lead to the economic mess we are in today. Our government spends more money than it takes in and we have huge deficits. People max out their credit cards for that new computer, HD TV or the best clothes. People bought houses they couldn’t afford with flexible interest rates and they are now in foreclosure. If parents had taught their children the importance of self control (in ALL things), then we’d have a much different society today.

  15. #15 Student
    May 16, 2009

    Thank you for this article! I read it with interest as a college student currently doing a terrible, terrible job studying for finals. As I was trying to figure out why I couldn’t focus on the task at hand, I realized that delayed gratification probably did have something to do with it, but wasn’t the whole story, so I’m looking for more insights. I’ve been able to turn down offers to do more appealing things than study, but that hasn’t necessarily stopped me from being extremely distractible while trying to buckle down at the desk with the books. My mind looks for anything else to think about besides what I need to be learning and seizes any small task that needs to be done (hair-brushing, email checking, reading STUFF BESIDES WHAT I’M SUPPOSED TO BE). How do I shut out other thoughts and focus?

  16. #16 Dr foreclosure loan
    May 17, 2009

    I lost self control now I need a foreclosure loan

  17. #17 Meryl
    May 24, 2009

    Self control – consider the effects of cultural influences.

    My experiences of growing up in a Chinese Singaporean setting (back in the 70’s)- the most senior family members were to eat the meals first, while as children, being on the lowest hierarchy, must wait – no matter how hungry you might be. Over time, it seems ingrained in the psyche. Waiting becomes expected. In this way, we learn the art of patience.

    When my 4-year old wants to go to the toy shop at the mall while we’re at the grocery store, I tell him “Let me think about it.”

    This way, he has to wait. Also, he learns about “deliberation”. No doubt, he will be pestering me every other 5 minutes “have you thought about it yet, so yes or no?”.

    As a parent, you just have to be patient, and says “not yet”. When he sees your patience, he will learn it “automatically” over time. It requires repetitions, tough endurance and a keen sense of humour – you will survive parenthood.

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