The psychology of willpower



 marshmallow test book

A child is presented with a marshmallow and given a choice: eat this one now, or wait and enjoy two later?

This is the iconic experiment that renowned psychologist, Walter Mischel, is famed for and one of the most important in the history of psychology. In his fascinating new book he uses this simple test to explain to us what self-control is and how we can master it.

Years of studying the outcomes of The Marshmallow Test has allowed him to develop proof that the ability to delay gratification is critical to living a successful and fulfilling life. Mischel describes how self-control not only predicts higher grades in school, better social functioning and a greater sense of self-worth but it also helps us manage stress, pursue our goals and cope with painful emotions.

I bought this book as I have very little resistance to temptations such as flapjacks and vodka whereas I can delay gratification quite easily if the consequences affect my future self financially. I wanted to know whether willpower is prewired or can it be learned?



Mischel draws on decades of research and true life examples to explore what willpower really is, what skills we need to make this work and how we can apply these skills in everyday life to exact self-control on everything from coping with stress, quitting smoking and weight management to recovering from a broken heart and planning for retirement. He says; “by changing how we think, we can change what we feel, do and become.”

I found this book such an interesting read. It explains so much that makes sense and to say his findings are thoroughly researched would be a huge understatement. Sometimes a bit of re-reading was required to really take in what he was saying as so many factors and variables are involved in all of his experiments. But for the most part this isn’t a hard-going psychology book nor is it dumbed down for mass market and people searching for easy answers. I’d say it’s pitched half way between a “science-y” type text and a self-help book.

I would’ve liked a few tests and exercises that we could do for ourselves to be able to put into practice the core If-then strategy that we are introduced to. That would’ve rounded off a remarkable study and left me feeling equipped to make better life choices.

In all that we learn throughout these 280 pages, Mischel says the key thing to consider everyday is when to wait for marshmallows and when to ring the bell and enjoy them now. But as he sums up;  “Unless we learn to develop the ability to wait, we don’t have that choice.” The Marshmallow Test has definitely made me think and I’m already designing my If-then type strategies. The flapjacks will not defeat me! Willpower can be learned.



Notes on the author – Walter Mischel

  • Born in Vienna, Austria. He escaped to the US as a small child with his parents when the Nazis tookover
  • Internationally renowned psychologist and winner of many awards and prizes
  • He worked with the Cookie Monster on Sesame Street to help children learn about self-control in a fun environment
  • Lives in New York



2 thoughts on “The psychology of willpower

  1. extremely interesting. it is amazing how much effect the mind can have on our body and its actions. the way we think can change our whole day, what we eat, how we behave, mind over matter!

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