In the 1960s, a team at Stanford University led by Walter Mischel set out to perform a number of psychological experiments on several groups of kids in what has come to be popularly referred to as the “marshmallow experiment.” What was this test and why should you even care about it decades later?
The marshmallow test in brief
The marshmallow test was really simple. Kids were made to sit at a table and a single marshmallow was placed on a plate before each of them. The researcher then told each kid that they were free to eat the marshmallow before them, but if they could wait for quarter an hour while the researcher was away, a second marshmallow would be offered to the kid in addition to the first. Each kid was left in a room alone, while some kids were paired up in their rooms.
The researchers then observed the conduct of the kids during the 15-minute wait. Needless to say, the observations were mixed. Some kids immediately dug in and ate the marshmallow while others resisted for a while before succumbing to the allure of the delicacy before them.
A number of the kids opted to wait through the entire 15 minutes, and these were rewarded with a second marshmallow. This group proved that it paid to be patient for your rewards (delayed gratification). Is this what made the marshmallow experiment so famous? Not in the least; what happened afterwards is what catapulted this simple test to enduring fame.
The follow-up study
Decades later, the Stanford team followed up the kids who had exhibited delayed gratification during the marshmallow test administered while those kids were aged 4-6 years old. What the researchers found was astounding.
This group of kids earned more money, were healthier, performed better in school and generally outperformed their counterparts in every measure of success that the researchers looked at. The conclusion of the team was that there was a strong correlation between exercising delayed gratification and one’s latter success.
This research has played a major role in the way kids and adults are taught to position themselves for success later in life, and we see lots of situations around us which provide proof that it is indeed worthwhile to exercise delayed gratification. For example;
- A child who resists the urge to watch television until he or she has completed their homework will get better grades than another kid who can’t resist TV and puts off attending to their homework.
- An employee who opts to forego splurging on luxuries after getting their paycheck is likely to be better off financially when compared to another who can’t resist the allure of luxuries.
- Someone who postpones the gratification of going to the movies and instead opts to go to the gym will be rewarded with a better degree of fitness than another who always chooses the gratification of a night out rather than spending an hour or so at the gym.
- Delaying the gratification of relaxing at home after work by enrolling for further studies later pays off in terms of career growth as opposed to lounging at home at the end of your work day.
All these examples show how delaying immediate gratification pays off in the long term, but why do some people appear to have a better ability to delay gratification in comparison to others?
Factors influencing our ability to delay gratification
In the decades since the original marshmallow test was done, several groups of researchers have tried to replicate that study and its findings. Needless to say, the results have been mixed, but we can learn from the more recent marshmallow tests that lots of factors are at play while a kid is deciding whether to wait for the bigger reward or take what is before them now. These include;
An existing relationship of trust
In one of the recent versions of the marshmallow test, kids were divided into two groups. One group of kids was first primed by an adult making and fulfilling some promises before the marshmallow test was administered. The other group had kids whose initial promises weren’t kept before the marshmallow test was administered. No prizes for guessing which group of kids were more willing to wait for the bigger reward in the marshmallow test! A relationship of trust increases the odds of a kid waiting to receive the bigger reward instead of succumbing to the urge to take what is immediately before them.
Other researchers also discovered that kids from poorer families were less likely to wait for the bigger reward promised during a marshmallow test when compared to kids from more affluent families. This could be because the environment of lack in poor communities primes kids to be quick and take what is available while they have a chance, while affluence makes kids aware that their parents have the capacity to fulfill any promise that they make to them.
Cooperation (or lack thereof)
Kids who cooperated with their peers during the wait period fared better than those who were on their own. Our lives are also filled with examples of tasks or goals being easier to attain while collaborating with others.
The list of additional factors at play in the marshmallow test goes on and on, but the bottom line is that delaying immediate gratification will stand you in good stead throughout your life.
For those who are now scared that a single decision (about eating a single marshmallow immediately or waiting to receive a second one) a kid makes while they are 5 years old can affect their entire lives, have no worries. We have shown in the discussion above that the environment and other forces equally contribute to how one’s life pans out, and many of those factors can be influenced by the affected individual.
This is an empowering realization since you can be sure that the trajectory of your life is not dependent on some unknown forces about which you have no control. A good place to start is by identifying an area where giving in to your desire for immediate gratification has been holding you back from making progress. Resolve to make one slight improvement at a time until delaying gratification becomes part of you!
To Your Success,