Can a simple 15-minute test accurately predict your future success?

Walter Mischel is a psychologist who worked at  Stanford University. In the early 1960s, he conducted an experiment, which is now famously known as “The Marshmallow Test”.  It is a widely followed psychological experiment and has been replicated by Mischel and many other researchers, with many variations on the original test.

 

The experiments were done on pre-schoolers ages 4-6.  The premise of the experiment was simple.  The children were led to an empty room, with just a chair and a table.  On the table was a piece of single marshmallow (or sometimes a pretzel or a cookie) – a very tempting treat for a pre-schooler!  The experimenter would offer the child a deal – “If you want – you can eat this marshmallow right now.  But if you wait 15 minutes without eating this marshmallow I will come back and give you another one so you will have two marshmallows.” Most children opted to wait 15 minutes to earn the second piece of the treat.

The experimenter would then leave the room and observe the children via a hidden camera or one-way glass partition.

 

As you can imagine, the tempting piece of marshmallow – right in front of their eyes, was a formidable foe for the children.  It was a tug of war between will power and temptation.  Between instant gratification and delaying impulses for a larger reward later.  The kids would look at the treat, smell it, hold it in their hands, tear a tiny piece and taste it, and some would give into the temptation and just gulp it down!  Other kids would try their best to distract themselves – by closing their eyes or looking away from the marshmallow, by singing, by pushing the marshmallow to the far corner of the table and away from their reach.   Watch the really cute and funny video of the kids wrestling with temptation.

 

Many of the children succumbed to the temptation and could not hold off for the 15 minute period, even though they had told the experimenter that they would rather wait and earn the second piece of marshmallow.  Only 1 out of 3 kids were able to resist the temptation for 15 minutes to get the second piece of the treat.  Mischel had three young daughters who kind of served as his “advisory board” in designing, coordinating and conducting these experiments.  The girls went to the same school as the marshmallow experiment kids.

 

As the months went by, Mischel’s daughters reported that the marshmallow experiment kids who were able to resist temptation were getting better grades than the kids who succumbed to the temptation.  Mischel decided to follow up on the marshmallow kids as they grew up.  40 years later, Mischel and his research team are still following up on how the marshmallow kid’s lives turned out.

 

As the marshmallow kids grew up, the kids who had the will-power to resist temptation (or delay gratification) were performing much better than those who could not – on many of the standard measures.  They had better grades (SAT scores), were healthier (lower BMI), had less likelihood or drug or alcohol addiction, and were described by their parents and happier and well adjusted. As it turns out, will power, self-control and the ability to delay gratification is a big deal!

 

And it makes sense, doesn’t it?  If you want better grades, you need the will power and self-discipline, to be able to resist the temptation to watch TV, browse the internet or play a video game.  If you want to lose weight, you have to resist the temptation to eat comfort foods and have the discipline to exercise regularly.  If you want to save for retirement you need the self-discipline to overcome the temptation to buy clothes, or gadgets or other trinkets and put the money in a retirement account.

 

Success in any area of life requires us to have the will power – to resist the temptation to do the easier and more pleasant activity in favor of the relatively more difficult task.  If we don’t, then we are sacrificing the much larger long term benefit for a temporary short term pleasure.  This tug of war between willpower or self-control and instant gratification plays out throughout our lives.

 

As adults – it is probably fairly easy for us to pass the marshmallow test – which two-thirds of the 4-6-year-olds failed.  However, we have our own marshmallow moments throughout the day!  And our will power, our self-control – in those moments will decide whether we succeed, or not, in many areas of our lives – health, career success, finances, relationships.  What daily temptations do you give into?  May be eating that piece of chocolate cake when you really want to eat healthy foods?  Or snoozing the alarm clock when you should get up and exercise?  Which activity in your daily routine will benefit from having a better self control or better will power?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

 

 

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