Professor Marshmallow Passes Away

His death did not make the headlines.

Walter Mischel passed away a few weeks ago in New York, aged 88. He was born in Vienna to his parents Salomon and Lea, and in they fled to America to escape the Nazis in 1938.

Mischel became a world-famous psychologist, known primarily for the Marshmallow Test.  In the 1960s, he invited hundreds of children to his laboratory to participate in an experiment.  Mischel offered them the choice of receiving one marshmallow immediately or waiting a bit and then receiving two marshmallows.  Those who managed to delay their gratification for a short period of time received more at the end.  Two thirds of the children were unable to wait.  A marshmallow in hand is worth more than two in the researcher’s hand. One-third of the children managed to last out waiting for 20 minutes (!) and then received a double treat.

Mischel’s follow-up of these children throughout the years revealed surprising observations: the children who managed to wait, became more successful adults in all aspects of life.  Not only did they earn more and achieve higher grades, they were also less likely to be addicted to alcohol and drugs, put away more savings for their pension, were healthier, happier and contributed more to society.  The experiment was conducted and replicated thousands of times and the results repeatedly led the researchers to conclude that self-control is the most important value to teach children (and adults).

This week, we begin reading the Torah, starting with Bereishit.  Walter, the son of Leah, of blessed memory, is no longer with us to hear the weekly portion.  Yet, his work was actually all about the main lesson we can learn from Bereishit.  Adam and Eve are given just one commandment in Paradise: not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge.  They are unable to control themselves, and as a result, are driven out of Paradise.  Since then, the commentators have been writing about the importance of withstanding temptation, understanding that in our world some things are permitted and others are forbidden.  “Who is mighty – one who overcomes his cravings” not just to receive two marshmallows, but to make the world a better place.  Mishcel himself describes how the successful children in his experiments devised tactics to help them withstand the temptation to give into their desires: they covered their eyes, whispered words of encouragement to themselves, or pushed the marshmallow aside.  He once noted with a smile that “these pre-schoolers can do what Adam and Eve were unable to do in Paradise.”

A look at the headlines of the week in which we read Bereishit, will make us realize just how relevant this message is.  Nochi Dankner began his prison sentence this week.  How important and difficult it is to place limits and constraints when dealing with another person’s money.  Examples of assault and exploitation continue to come to light as part of the #me too and #why I didn’t report campaigns.  It is so important and difficult to place limits with respect to another person’s body.  And the recent terrible road accidents involving electric bikes and alcohol remind us once again that our most fundamental challenge is to differentiate between the permitted and forbidden.  This is the theme common to the Tree of Knowledge, the marshmallow, and our daily lives here and now.

About the Author
Sivan Rahav Meir is an Israeli television and print journalist, author and radio and TV host.