The Marshmallow Test


Imagine that you are 5 years old and someone offers you a big luscious marshmallow.  As you begin to salivate, they tell you that if you wait for 10 minutes without eating it, you will get a second marshmallow.  Would you devour the bird in hand or have the self-discipline to wait in order to double the delicious reward?  The answer to this question lies in your ability to fight the limbic part of your brain.


In his book “The Marshmallow Test”, Walter Mischel used this simple test to make some interesting discoveries about the human brain.  The human brain consists of two systems.  Instant desires come from the limbic part of the brain, AKA “The hot system”.  Delayed gratification, long term planning and logic comes from the Neo Cortex, AKA “The cool system”.  The hot system is represented by the grasshopper, and the cool system is represented by the ants in the famous story of the grasshopper and the ants.


The psychology is the same for political scandals as it is for the 5 year old staring at the first marshmallow.  When offered a marshmallow or instant desire, an immediate response is triggered in the limbic (hot system) part of the brain.  The ability to resist an instant temptation in exchange for a delayed reward depends on one’s ability to use their cool system to overrule their hot system.  We cannot do away with our limbic system, but we can learn to control it through awareness.  The reason that “sleeping” on a big decision or an emotional situation is always a good idea is that it allows the hot system to cool down.  Once the limbic system is cooled, it makes room for the neo cortex to bring some logic and long term planning into the decision making process.


Here are a few ways to promote executive function and control the hot system:

  1. When you become aware that your hot system has fired up, give it time to cool off
  2. Think long term, remembering your goals and plans
  3. Measure your progress and make appropriate changes along the way
  4. Thoughtfully look out for and resist the temptations that will inevitably pop up along the way


Learning to control your hot system will help a 5 year old get an extra marshmallow, help a politician resist the next scandal and it will help you avoid the trap of instant gratification as you focus on your long term plans and goals.

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