The Marshmallow Test by Walter Mischel
Walter Mischel’s work is receiving considerable publicity at the moment. His marshmallow test involved leaving young children, typically about four years old, alone in a room with a marshmallow or other goodie. They were told that if they could resist eating it for 15 or so minutes, they could have two instead of one marshmallow.
The progress of these children was checked later as young adults. It was found that those who could defer gratification at this young age did much better in education, employment and general health over the subsequent years. The children who managed to defer eating the first marshmallow used strategies such as facing away from the treat, or involving themselves in some other activity.
Mischel compares this to adult behaviour, such as avoiding the desert offering in a restaurant. The last may be a reference to the much-hyped work of Daniel Wegner, whose argument against the existence of freewill essentially rested on an individual not being able to resist a dessert in a restaurant. This argument was confidently advanced, without any reference to the strategies that might be employed to avoid the threatening dessert.
Mischel sees the conflict between immediate as against delayed gratification, as a conflict between the ‘hot’ emotional response of primitive brain systems and more reflective, rational systems centred in the prefrontal cortex. These without doubt play a role in moderating initial impulses, although the ability to evaluate reward/punisher qualities, including the deferral of gratification, is also a function of parts of the emotional system, and this can play a role in the conscious will to resist gratification.