Would you pass the Marshmallow Test?

marshmallow book v2

The Marshmallow Test was devised by American psychologist Walter Mischel to explore the ability of  small children to forgo instant gratification in return for a greater reward later.

A pre-school age child was invited by a researcher to choose between eating a single marshmallow now or waiting until the researcher returned and being rewarded with two marshmallows. Some children scoffed the single marshmallow almost immediately, but others held out for up to 15 minutes by using different strategies to distract themselves.

Most amazingly, Mischel and other researchers discovered that the children who demonstrated greater self-control in the test seemed to fare better in later life across a range of measures – they performed better at school, had a lower body-mass index and had better life outcomes.

Mischel described the urge for instant gratification as “hot” thinking, and the ability to defer gratification as “cool” thinking. He found that the children who did well in the test were employing strategies to “cool” their urges. One young girl said she imagined a frame around the marshmallow so that it looked like a picture and “you can’t eat a picture, can you?”


mallow test kid

How well would you have done in this test? If self-control is not your strong point, fear not. The good news is that self-control is like a muscle, and the more we exercise this muscle the stronger it gets. But, like a muscle, it gets tired, so if we rely on it too much for too long it can let us down.

Money management is like an endless marshmallow test – shall I spend now or save for later? We can use both “hot” and “cool” strategies to help us.

  • By coming up with “cooling” thoughts to counter a sudden “hot” impulse to spend – “yes that’s a lovely handbag but I already have several lovely handbags that I bought on an impulse, and now I hardly ever use them”.
  • By heating up our perfectly rational but “cool” decision to save up for something. If I’m saving for a summer holiday I can pin up a picture of the holiday resort and imagine myself lying on a sun-lounger sipping an ice-cold beer.

Face the Future

Pension providers are starting to use this “hot” thinking psychology to help us to visualize ourselves when we are older. Research has shown that when this older self becomes more real to us, we become more prepared to make sacrifices today so that our future self can enjoy a better retirement. Aviva recently launched a very effective ad campaign using this idea– The Aviva Reality Check / Face My Future. You can view the ad here.

face the future

In the ad, a man and a woman are separately shown what they might look like when they are older. This is clearly quite an emotional experience for them. Each is then shown how much their future pension might be – the woman will be comfortably off, but not the man. The reality of this hits home to them. It’s a very effective demonstration of how we can heat up our “cool” thinking about the future.

So basing our actions on our fast, impulsive, automatic “hot” thinking is not always a bad thing – indeed the ability to react to danger almost without thinking is important to our survival. And you can also deliberately choose to invoke “hot” thinking in order to reduce the psychological distance between your current and future self, whenever you need increase your emotional commitment to a future goal.

This is a big topic so I’ll be saying more in my next post. I’m aiming to publish a new post every Monday at 10am. To make sure you’re notified of new posts please be sure to sign up – just click on the “follow” box at the foot of this post.


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