Articles & Tools

Recommendation: “The Marshmallow Test” by Walter Michel

Author: Alex Shillman
Matar Publishing, 2016, 308 pages.

In the early 1940s, a teacher at an immigrant school in Brooklyn administered a standard achievement test to a young Jewish boy who had joined the class after recently fleeing occupied Austria with his parents. The teacher did not bother to hide from the child her disappointment with the results of the test, no one drew her attention to the fact that the entire test was written in English, a language that the child was still struggling to acquire. After seventy years and looking back, the great psychologist Walter Michel does not rule out the possibility that this was the point at which he developed an aversion to different tests that try to define in a superficial and fixed way the wonderful complexity of personality.

It is ironic that Michel later became famous in popular culture precisely because of a simple and ingenious test he gave to preschoolers at Stanford. Michel asked the children to choose between one marshmallow now and two later, it turned out that children who managed to hold back and wait for the bigger prize grew up to be more patient teenagers with better academic achievements, and then adults with fewer addiction, delinquency, and unemployment problems, compared to children who broke down and preferred the immediate prize. But Michel was not quick to conclude from this that our fate was sealed already from childhood. He explored the ways in which the children who managed to hold back helped themselves while waiting, the experimental videos and its various reconstructions became popular on YouTube precisely because of the sweet methods that the children invent to resist temptation, a thorough study of the ceiling of the room, turning the marshmallow into a racing car galloping across the table, and more. The conclusion was optimistic – self-control is a strategy that can be learned and employed when necessary, as long as there is the necessary motivation and knowledge.

Walter Michel is one of the greatest psychologists of the twentieth century, and given that psychological science is young and counts its days from the end of the 19th century, then Michel is actually one of the most important psychologists of all time. Michel is the central figure in settling a huge debate that has been going on for several decades among proponents of the idea that each person has a more or less stable personality, a kind of unique set of traits with which he is born, and it can be said that someone is usually “emotional” or “hot-tempered.” and the school of thought that advocated determinism of the situation, that is, innate traits have no meaning and everything depends on the influence of the environment and the concrete situation in which a person finds himself. Both sides entrenched themselves around evidence that reinforced their positions, and the world of research was torn for many years. After decades of research, Michel has proposed a classic Jewish solution to the heated debate – both! We may be born with certain character traits and genetic tendencies, but how and where they manifest will depend entirely on the structure of the environment and the situation we find ourselves in. On the sills placed by Michel, the dominant CBT treatment was built today.

This is not a classic popular book, Michel educated the generation of prominent psychologists working in the world today, so the book is almost a professional autobiography, on a personal note and with great modesty Michel tells about his experiments over the years and the works of his students who became important researchers in their own right. Through the hundreds of experiments, a picture emerges of a constant struggle between two brain systems, the hot and impulsive one and its cold and logical friend, and man has the choice of whether and when to use the cold system to achieve better results. In fact, the question facing each and every one is how much to sacrifice today, for tomorrow’s self. Out of this tension between the two “I” emerges a fascinating story of self-control, cultural gaps, human nature, genetics and the space of human choice. The story encapsulates nearly a century of research and the eighty-six-year-old author still looks ahead with the curiosity of the Brooklyn immigrant boy, in a way that will make it difficult for you to remain indifferent and not join the journey.

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