Sunday, September 4, 2016

Reflections: The Marshmallow Test

I first heard about the marshmallow test in 2010 while listening Dieter F. Uchtdorf's conference address titled Continue in Patience.  I thought the concept was fascinating at the time, and over the years I have stumbled across various accounts of the tests and their impact on the academic community, as well as public policy debates.  The Marshmallow Test, written by Walter Mischel, is a deeper dive into the origins of the famous study and the subsequent academic work which has been done to confirm and challenge its findings.

The reader will immediately notice how the marshmallow test and its findings are far more nuanced than how its often reported in the media.  It's not that the findings are incorrect or distorted, it's that the story is so much richer and more complex than a headline.  I found this to be the most intriguing and valuable aspect of The Marshmallow Test.  I love taking a deeper dive into assumptions. When it comes to human nature and human behavior generally, there are a lot of assumptions and even intellectual biases.  Mischel takes a special interest in the nature versus nurture debate, and he points toward a bevy of academic research to support his findings.  As I am wont to do, I accept the premises and conclusions of most academic research with limited skepticism because there is always another view, another study, and another reasonable opinion to suggest a contrarian viewpoint.

Although all of the material is interesting, the writing isn't noticeably poignant.  Mischel appears to be much more of a researcher than an author.  In addition, The Marshmallow Test probably could have been a bit shorter.  The main point of the book was made repeatedly and in different contexts.  A few stories and a few research studies probably could have been omitted and the results would have been the same.  Having said that, Mischel does spare the reader the graphs and charts which usually accompany a book like this.  I enjoy looking at those and trying to understand the data at a more granular level, but it wasn't necessary for this book, which is mostly written for the layman.

In conclusion, the marshmallow test is a very, very interesting academic study which deserves some attention, especially in the context of public policy, such as education.  The debate over nature versus nurture is a fundamental one, and the results from Mischel's work and others contributes in a significant way to the debate.  The Marshmallow Test was a nice look behind the curtain of a particular set of academic studies, and if you have interest in something like that then this book is worth perusing.  Otherwise, it may be a bit of slog.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
Reflections: Life at the Bottom
Reflections: Up from Slavery

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