Eating Marshmallows in PE

The Marshmallow Test

I have just finished reading The Marshmallow Test by Walter Mischel:


Walter Mischel is a psychologist who specialises in personality theory and social psychology. The book details his life’s work and research over the last 50 years, specifically looking at self control.

My understanding of this is that self control and self discipline are two different sides of the same coin. That self discipline is will power to keep doing things that are beneficial for you, even though you might not want to. Self control is the will power to stop you doing things you know might have a negative consequence but you want to do them anyway.

Mitchell developed a situation that allowed him to study children’s responses to either make things easier or harder for themselves with regards to self control, not specifically a test of self control. This developed into the Marshmallow Test, although other treats were used. The test itself is quite simple. He gave the children a choice between one reward (a marshmallow) that they could have immediately, and a larger reward (two marshmallows) for which they would have to wait, alone, for up to 20 minutes. Here is an example of the confectionary torture these children had to go through.

Thinking Hot and Cold

He describes our decision making as two processes one ‘hot’ and the other ‘cool’. (In some ways very similar to Daniel Kahneman’s excellent book Thinking, Fast and Slow). The hot system is hugely important for our survival as a species. It’s a reactionary, emotional response mechanism that allows us to make quick decisions, especially under times of stress such as desire, hunger and danger. He states that it is fully functional from birth and can quickly trigger impulsive action. Its the system that makes someone on a diet eat the whole 500g bar of Dairy Milk and the recovering alcoholic fall off the wagon. He believes it is the predominant system in the the early years of life.

The cool system is much more reflective and slower to activate. This system is associated with making decisions for the future, rather than immediate ones. This one develops slowly and doesn’t fully mature till the early twenties (or even yet for someone like me who I think is quite compulsive).

Mischel states that both systems work simultaneously and reciprocally. When one becomes more active then the other becomes less active. His focus was about whether children could be taught to develop their cool system whilst under stress and the Marshmallow Test helped him to see whether self-control is an acquirable cognitive skill.

Delaying Gratification

Why is it important to delay gratification? Mischel followed up his research and found that children who had the ability to delay immediate gratification, by not eating their treat quickly, was an indicator for their long term success. Children that could delay were found to have, later on in life, higher SAT scores (which help entry to universities in America), had a lower body mass index and higher self worth. Those with the ability to self delay also showed in brain scans a difference in the areas associated with addictions and obesity to those who couldn’t. He also found he could increase or decrease the average wait time of a child by changing the format of the test. So what helped or hindered the children?

What extended waiting times

Covering the rewards

Helping them think of other ‘happy’ thoughts like giving compliments

Giving them a picture instead of the real reward

Asking them to imagine the real reward was a picture

Focusing on the ‘cool’ descriptive information of the treat

What decreased waiting times

Leaving rewards uncovered

Making them think of unhappy thoughts like being alone

Cueing how good the reward is

Telling them to imagine the picture of the reward was real

Focusing on the ‘hot’ arousing and pleasurable feeling of the treat

What Mischel is saying with these results, is that it is not the power of the stimulus (the Marshmallow) but how you mentally appraise it. How you think about it changes it. If we can teach children this, then perhaps we could teach them self control. Therefore giving them a better chance at succeeding in their education, with their relationships and in life in general.


Personal Thoughts

Even after reading the book I am unsure whether we can actually ‘teach’ self control at school. However Mischel is sure that self control is not genetic or a fixed trait. It isn’t something we either have or don’t have, but can be learnt.  As teachers we can can provide opportunities within school for students to explore developing this cognitive ability, but I think if it needs to be developed, then it probably needs to be developed at a young age. Therefore I feel that the responsibility on teaching this should fall on the parents, supported by schools. This would be a much more successful approach. If home life sets no boundaries,  or doesn’t help the child in developing self control, then school will probably always fail in teaching this. Speaking to my sister about this, as she has children of her own, she also pointed out that honesty from adults plays a big part in self control. She explained further by describing a scenario to me; imagine a child in a family where promises were always made, but never delivered, why would that child delay gratification? Why would that child wait for something more or better if they learnt that never comes? A child’s home background, upbringing and parents will possibly have a larger influence on their self control then teaching them at school.

Like with any good ideas, over emphasising them, I think, can be problematic. Surely promoting self control is a positive one within school, but we also need to temper it with teaching when immediate action is also required. Constantly delaying self gratification can lead to a very productive but joyless life.There needs to be times where the ‘self’ and the ‘present’ need to be put forward first as well.


How does it help in PE? – If – Then

In Chapter 19 of the book, Mischel looks at applying some core strategies in developing self control. I think the IF-THEN implementation plan has a big part to play in PE and Sport.

How many times as PE teachers or sports coaches have you seen students do the following; crying when losing a match, being negative at a peer when they do something wrong, shouting at the referee when they make a decision they don’t agree with, complaining about others performances loudly so everyone can hear.

I think these are due to that ‘hot’ emotionally primitive immediate response system kicking in when they are under stress. These reactions neither help the individual or the group that student is working with. Having strategies in place to try and deal with them are hugely important.

The If-Then plan is simple but seemingly effective. It requires you as a teacher, or with a student in conversation, to identify the trigger of the hot emotional response you both would like to control. Mischel suggests the individual to keep a journal to track those moments, but we could easily do that as a teacher or as a coach. Once the trigger has been clearly identify, together try to plan a ‘cooling’ method, a plan to put in place.

3 years ago I had a senior rugby player called Matt, who couldn’t control his anger at the referee. After his third yellow card in as many games I gave him an internal ban from playing. After serving his ban we sat down to discuss his trigger.  Matt said it was when a referee repeatedly penalised our team. He felt that was unfair and biased and upset him. I ask did he feel that way when the referee makes those decisions in our favour? We then discussed the consequences of his anger, what positives did it bring him or the team. Other than antagonising the referee, which might not help his decision making and leaving us one player short, Matt couldn’t see any other consequences. Matt decided that when he felt the trigger rising he would walk away and deep breath for 10 seconds. We asked three players on the team to be aware of that and take responsibility for reminding him and help him walk away. If I feel the referee is making biased decisions, then I will walk away and breath deeply for ten seconds. We reminded this to him in training sessions, we got him to repeat it to himself, his friends helped him on this pitch. It was hugely successful in his case and had a knock on effect with his relationship with other teachers who he had difficulties with.

Obviously this is challenging in the heat of the moment so it needs to be practiced, with the student reminded of the trigger, the feelings and the plan. Having friends, parents and other teachers know the plans will probably help with the implementation. I think its important they know the plan will take time and might need to be refined, but I think these are productive conversations to have with students in Physical Education and Sport. There is potential to use as wider strategy for pastoral and behavioural issues within school as well.

Update: Further Reading:

An in-depth Q and A with Walter Mischel describing his work

A critique on why self control is overrated in children

New findings in research that show environment may be a more important factor in determining self control


6 thoughts on “Eating Marshmallows in PE

  1. Great post, mate. I interpret the book differently. I see children, all people, as having certain biological apparatus that can either help or hinder them in making choices in a cultural context. But I also see cultural indoctrination of the ego (for want of a better word), of materialism, narcissism and selfishness being forceful in our systematic messaging to young people. Let’s not pretend that cultural expectations are for deferred or postponed gratification or for sharing and common unity. They’re widely directed towards taking what you can, competing for your own benefit and acting out of selfishness. The hot and cold analogy is an interesting one. I have another:

    An old Cherokee chief was teaching his grandson about life…

    “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.
    “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves.

    “One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, self-doubt, and ego.

    “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.

    “This same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

    The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather,
    “Which wolf will win?”

    The old chief simply replied,
    “The one you feed.”


    1. Morning James,

      Once again thank you for taking the time to post and your words of wisdom. It always surprises me that two people can read the same book and find different messages in their. I think thats probably how we differ in our views of things. You are always trying to see the bigger picture, where this might sit in relation to a wider society, for me its about my own practice and how I can change it. Perhaps we can make some difference to others in our own way and own approaches.


  2. As always a challenging blog and one that makes me think about pedagogical approaches. I think/feel/know (take your pick) that when we try and achieve different things in the timetable we need to approach it from different directions. What I increasingly see/hear/experience in the one size fits all approach to teaching (albeit with lots of variations and adaptations) that doesn’t always get close to the desired outcome. I guess what I’m saying if we want our students to eat marshmallows then we need to teach them in one way and if we want them to save their marshmallows then we need a while other approach – and a developmental one at that. You shouldn’t start with a twenty-minute ‘fast’ from marshmallows but start smaller. I guess what I’m saying is I believe we can teach students self-control and self-discipline but, as you mention these are not the same thing, and therefore we need to thin of different ways of achieving our aims.


    1. I am deeply sceptical about specifically having aim to teach something like ‘self-control’, ‘resilience’ or even ‘British Values’ within my lessons. I feel a multi activity and multi approach to Physical Education will provide enough opportunities without us necessarily having to teach explicitly about character or values. Our subject is a natural vehicle for us to provide moments where students, with support, can look to reflect on them and develop them. If we continue to verbally engage with our students about what they are doing and challenge their knowledge and their actions then hopefully we can facilitate their development. The IF-THEN plan is a perfect example. If a students within a lesson shouts at another student for not catching the ball we have to challenge them on it. I do agree with you, we can help to teach students these things, but we need to think very clearly about our approach. One for further thought.


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