THE MARSHMALLOW TEST: Mastering Self-Control, by Walter Mischel. Little, Brown, 326 pp., $29.

 

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You've surely heard of the Marshmallow Test, an experiment at Stanford University in the early 1960s. Walter Mischel gave preschoolers a choice: They could eat one marshmallow immediately or wait 20 minutes and have two. (Both were in front of them.) How they managed delayed gratification "unexpectedly turned out to predict much about their lives," writes Mischel in this book. "The more seconds they waited at age four or five, the higher their SAT scores" -- and, years later, their success at meeting goals. (Not to mention, the lower their body mass index.) At midlife, "high delay" and "low delay" preschoolers had "distinctly different brain scans in areas linked to addictions and obesity."

Can self-control be learned? Yes, says Mischel in this fascinating book. He writes how the "hot emotional system," the limbic, regulates basic survival drives such as hunger and fear. The "cool cognitive system," centered in "the most evolved region of the brain," can help us stop when we're feeling out of control.

THE SCOOP Techniques include self-monitoring to find your "hot spots" and constructing "If/Then" scenarios that eventually "take the effort out of effortful control." (He even helped "Sesame Street" teach Cookie Monster to wait for his treat.)

THE BOTTOM LINE In an experiment, heavy smokers focused on longterm dangers “significantly reduced their cigarette cravings.”