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"It Is the Individual Who Is the Agent of the Action"

(p. C6) Mr. Mischel begins by describing how, in the late 1960s, he and his colleagues devised a straightforward experiment to measure self-control at the Bing Nursery School at Stanford University. In its simplest form, children between the ages of 4 and 6 were given a choice between one marshmallow now or two marshmallows if they waited 15 minutes. Some kids ate the marshmallow right away, but most would engage in unintentionally hilarious attempts to overcome temptation.

. . . About a third of the original subjects, the researchers reported, deferred gratification long enough to get the second treat.

. . . in 2006, . . . Mr. Mischel published a new paper in the prestigious journal Psychological Science. The researchers had done a follow-up study with the students they had tested 40 years before, examining the sort of adults they had grown into. They found that the children who were able to delay gratification had higher SAT scores entering college, higher grade-point averages at the end of college and made more money after college. Perhaps not surprisingly, they also tended to have a lower body-mass index.

. . .

In his commencement address, Adm. McRaven explained his final life lesson with an anecdote: "In SEAL training there is a bell," he explained. "A brass bell that hangs in the center of the compound for all the students to see. All you have to do to quit--is ring the bell. Ring the bell and you no longer have to wake up at 5 o'clock. Ring the bell and you no longer have to do the freezing cold swims. Ring the bell and you no longer have to do the runs, the obstacle course, the PT--and you no longer have to endure the hardships of training. Just ring the bell." To ring the bell is to give up.

Interestingly, one of Mr. Mischel's lesser-known marshmallow experiments had a similar setup, with a bell that the children could ring to call back the experimenter and save them from themselves. For the children, though, ringing the bell was not giving up but calling in the cavalry. His book is an encouraging reminder that, despite all the factors that urge us to indulge, "at the end of that causal chain, it is the individual who is the agent of the action and decides when to ring the bell." You are ultimately in control of your self.

For the full review, see:

MICHAEL SHERMER. "Willpower and Won't Power; To resist the tempting treat, kids looked away, squirmed, sang or simply pretended to take a bite." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., Sept. 20, 2014): C6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Sept. 19, 2014, and has the title "Book Review: 'The Marshmallow Test' by Walter Mischel; To resist the tempting treat, kids looked away, squirmed, sang or simply pretended to take a bite.")

The book under review is:

Mischel, Walter. The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2014.

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