Yesterday was the international World Book Day. I personally love reading – there's nothing better than a good book. For this reason I'd like to recommend a book to you which I recently read and absolutely loved. You might ask why I recommend it to you on my blog? Well, it has a lot to do with psychology and might also be really interesting for you in sports. Plus, it's actually really funnily written. 😉   

The book I'm talking about is called The Marshmallow Test by Walter Mischel, a brilliant piece addressing our ability of controlling ourselves and delayed gratification.

Have you ever heard of the Marshmallow Test? If you are a psychologist or psychology student, you probably have. This test is really famous and therefore appears in every second lecture at university. Why? Walter Mischel’s scientific results on our self-control and willpower were influencing a lot of current science and development. 

Very shortly, this is how it worked:

Children (pre-school age) were put into a room with no other toys. On the table in front of them, they were presented a marshmallow and a bell next to it. In a next step, they were told that they could have one marshmallow immediately and two if they waited for 20 min.

The test was repeated with different age groups and in different settings (e.g. different rewards – chocolate if the kids preferred chocolate to marshmallows; in some situations they could actively see the marshmallows on a tablets, in others it was hidden under the tablet, etc.).

Walter Mischel shows that the ability to delay gratification correlates with living a successful and fulfilling life: self-control not only predicts better results in school, but also better social and cognitive functioning, as well as a higher feeling of self-worth. It also helps us to deal with stress, pursue goals more effectively, and manage painful emotions. 

The ability of self control develops over time. While younger kids find it hard to wait, older kids develop strategies which help them to overcome a first reaction of wanting to eat the marshmallow immediately.

What kind of strategies do they use?

  1. At the age of 6-10, kids are beginning to be better at controlling themselves. In order to do so, they often distract themselves with different things. E.g. while boys tend to distract themselves by being physically active (moving on the chair), girls prefer to sing to themselves. Self-talk is another strategy, they use: „I can’t eat this now. Don’t ring the bell, because you want to have two marshmallows“.
  2. The older they get (~12 years), they start using another strategy: they mentally create different pictures to what they see, e.g. the visualise to see them as white, big clouds or image that the marshmallows are not real but an image.
  3. Being in a good mood, being spoken of in high terms or making jokes before can also increase the self-control.

(There are obviously many more strategies that are used. These are just a few examples).

We have two systems in our brain: the „hot“ emotional system causes immediate, impulsive, reflexive reactions. This system is called limbic system. When the limbic system is activated we don’t reflect on things or rationally decide whether something is good or bad for us – we make quick, emotionally driven decisions. This system is activated when we e.g. see a mousse au chocolate in front of us or when we are in stressful situations like competitions.

The other system is the „cool“ system – the pre-frontal cortex. It is one of the best developed parts of our brain. This part is responsible for rational decision-making and reflective thinking. This part of the brain is mainly involved in our ability of self-control and willpower.

Both of these systems are interactive. In order to become better at dealing with stress or nervousness in competitions, it is important to train our frontal cortex. The crux is that the more stressed we are, the more active the limbic system becomes. It is therefore essential to train strategies that keep us focussed and „cool“.

Maybe one of the strategies the kids naturally used in order to get the second marshmallow fits you? What are your strategies to stay „cool“?

To learn more about self-control and willpower, how the results of the ability of self-control as kids affect their adulthood, what more strategies are recommended and help in situations like this – read the book! It’s definitely worth reading: it’s easily written, super interesting and with some really funny and surprising parts! 

I can recommend this book

  • To parents who want to learn how to teach their kids to become better at controlling themselves.
  • To athletes who find it hard to resist any mousse au chocolat, chips or other super sweet and fat food.
  • To athletes who find it hard to deal with stressful situations, like competitions.
  • To everyone who would like to learn more about self-control and willpower.

Last but not least, I want to say: Being too self-controlled wouldn’t be fun anymore either. It’s the balance that is important! 😊


Here are two videos (one in German, one in English) where Walter Mischel talks about his science: