Results of the Marshmallow Study

If I could tell you of a characteristic that could predict the level of success and happiness in the later life of your preschool-aged children would you be listening with all ears? What about for yourself? If you knew of a certain learned trait that could radically increase your likelihood of achievement and resourcefulness in coping skills would you do everything in your power to learn
and possess it?

Well this all-encompassing attribute has been long known since the results of Walter Mischels famous ‘Marshmallow study’ first came out in the 60’s. It was then followed up a decade later to show the continued long term impact the trait had on social and behavioural success. Unfortunately, however, this isn’t something that gets taught in schools.

The trait is delayed gratification, also known as impulse control. Delayed gratification is the ability to wait in order to obtain something that one wants. It may be closely associated to will power or self control. Essentially, delay behaviour measures the ability to defer an immediate but less desired outcome for the sake of a larger, preferred outcome contingent on waiting.

There is a similar trait well researched in human behaviour known as Hyperbolic Discounting which explains that when presented with two options of reward, we as humans show a preference for one that arrives sooner rather than later. Humans are said to discount the value of the later reward relative to the length of delay.

If I were to, for instance, offer you $50 today or $100 next year, which would you take? What about $50 today versus $100 in 6 months, or 6 weeks? Typically, most people will take less money today versus more tomorrow.

So where’s the problem?

While we’re all well aware that all decisions have their own consequences, what we’re talking about here actually has much larger, hidden concerns than just simple ramifications of a decision. In fact, the evidence reveals that delay behaviour (and the process underlying the decision making) can closely predict academic performance (SAT scores), social and cognitive competence, stress tolerance and tendency for drug use.

It is pretty well agreed that an infant is primarily impulse driven. That is, they seek any means to relieve tension immediately, motivated only by instant pleasure and are unable to delay gratification despite all attempts of logic and reason to dissuade them.

However, there becomes a divergence in personality as we mature and can learn to control this impulsivity, yet the degree to which this happens is highly variable. In fact, while some people cannot seem to bite the bullet on small, unpleasant activities in the short term for larger goals and pleasures in the future others seem to naturally forsake immediate gratification for temporally distant consequences of a positive nature.

We face it every day!

On a daily basis we face innumerable options and decisions, large or small, which reveal our level of personal control over impulsivity.

Think about the small, unimportant items on your ‘to-do’ list that can be instantly crossed off and ticked to give you immediate satisfaction when quickly completed versus the larger, more important items that take longer but are ultimately more essential. Which items are the ones that get done in most cases? Too often it’s the small, quick wins that give the immediate sense of
satisfaction, isn’t it?

What about the popular choice between the chocolate cake sitting in front of you and the longer term benefit of a healthy body, not to mention the common association of being disappointed in yourself after indulging; or choosing the warm bed over waking early to go for your morning exercise; or choosing to diligently study over slacking off, partying and flunking exams.

These are just some examples of our everyday choices that present a small short term pleasure versus a larger, long term gain.

One of the simplest examples is investing. We’re all familiar with the option between saving money and investing it versus spending it on pay day.

What about relationships? Have you ever indulged in a quick “I don’t want to hear it!” argument for self satisfaction instead of working thoroughly to get to the root cause of the issue? Or in your career, how many times have you faced the option of doing something yourself quickly versus taking the time to train someone else to delegate to? Or one of my pet hates – popping a panadol
instead of ridding a headache by addressing the cause.

A big problem in the fitness industry today is the ever-present craze of focussing on quick-fix weight loss fads instead of focussing on the health, performance and optimal functioning of the body, which undoubtedly leads to the best and most assured loss of unhealthy weight in the long run.

What about stress? Isn’t it quicker and easier to revert to smoking, drinking or eating to relieve stress compared to the tedious task of working on the stressors themselves?

Do you sell your house to get instantly out of fear when the market falls and times get tough or doyou heed your accountants’ advice of sticking through the tough times for a better reward in the end?

What about the behaviour habits typical to this day and age? Take Generation Y, for example – it is said that they are highly into instant gratification. When they have been brought up with all the information they need within the touch of a button on the internet how many would be willing to wait and work patiently for something they want or need?

As I said, these are just everyday examples of a short-term gratification over a preferred reward involving some delay. In most cases we can see how continued indulgence can lead to diminished success in any given field, but that’s not all. If you’re one who regularly struggles to delay gratification, well, the research says you also can’t handle stress, communicate, be planful and think ahead, be self reliant and confident or be self assertive compared to your better delaying colleagues.

The famous study:

A team under the wing of Walter Mischel at Stanford University during the late 60’s and early 70’s took a bunch of children, both
boys and girls, around four years old and assessed their delay ability. The test involved showing a reward (a marshmallow) to the
child and telling them that they would leave the room and that the child could have the reward now if they wanted but if they waited
until the experimenter returned on their own accord (a predetermined time, usually 15mins) he or she could have a greater reward – two marshmallows. A fairly simple conundrum: eat one now or wait and get two.

Around 10 years later, between ‘81 and ‘82, a follow up test was administered on some of the original participants aimed at distinguishing social and emotional differences correlated with the delay results.

Here’s what they found:

A strong correlation was found between the results of the delay scores and many personal attributes in the later lives of the participants. According to the follow up assessment, those who delayed longer:

· Are more verbally fluent
· Use and respond to reason
· Are attentive and able to concentrate
· Are planful and think ahead
· Are competent and skilful
· Are resourceful in initiating activities
· Are self-reliant and confident
· Become strongly involved in what they do
· Can be trusted and are dependable
· Are self assertive, curious, and exploring
· Are eager to learn and show concern for moral issues
· Do not tend to go to pieces under stress or become rattled and disorganised
· Are less likely to appear unworthy or think of self as bad
· Are not shy and reserved or slow to make social contacts
· Are not stubborn
· Do not tease other children
· Do not revert to more immature behaviour under stress
· Are not afraid of being deprived or concerned about getting enough
· Do not tend to be suspicious and distrustful
· Are not unable to delay gratification or wait for satisfaction
· Are not jealous or envious
· Do not become rigidly repetitive or immobilised under stress,
· And do not withdraw or disengage when under stress.

Further research:

Another study in 1996 by Krueger, et al. on delay of gratification and psychopathology showed that low control/delay was strongly correlated to externalizing problems in adolescent boys.

ickel & Johnson in 2003 revealed a higher tendency for hyperbolic discounting was linked to a higher rate of drug use.

When we indulge in instant gratification, or use hyperbolic discounting, we often work incongruently with that which we ultimately value because we tend to make choices today that aren’t in the best interest of our future selves.

What does this mean, and what can we do?

If you thought before that weak, impulsive thinking was detrimental to your success you now have even more reason to consider it so. We’ve seen how the weakness in self control in and of itself has negative flow-on effects to so many other areas. So what can you do to improve on this all important trait? For, it is a learned trait, and one that can be cultivated and practiced.
Below are the major means by which you can strengthen your ability to delay gratification for an
ultimately greater reward:

1) Conceal the lesser-preferred reward: It has been shown that waiting during delay is much harder when the reward objects are physically exposed versus being obscured from attention. In other words, when children or adults organise to ‘hide’ or keep out of attention the easy, short term reward it makes waiting for the long term reward much easier. Focus instead on the work that needs to be done rather than how good the gratification would be.

2) Change the attention from consumatory focus to abstract thinking: Self induced changes in cognition and attention during delay make a world of difference. If you think of the consumatory aspects of how the lesser reward will taste, smell, feel, you will arouse more emotional desires for it so as to lessen or negate the force of willpower. Instead, think of the ‘cool’ or abstract qualities as this will help delay longer and remove emotion.

3) Always think of the end reward: If you can build desire and emotion around the larger, long term reward rather than the lesser reward it will keep you that much more focussed. So continue to retain the goal of eventually obtaining the desired outcome.

4) Address the physiological factors that lower impulse control: The following factors are physiological parameters that have a dampening effect on the strength of psychological self-control:

· Lack of sleep: Even mild deprivation will lessen your power of self control.

· Low blood sugar: When the body gets insufficient carbohydrates to maintain sugar levels in the blood there is a decreased amount of glucose that reaches the brain. When the brain doesn’t get enough glucose you feel grumpy, tired, less willing to tolerate discomfort and are much less likely to delay gratification. In fact, it is in these times of low brain glucose uptake that people crave gratification – a sure-fire way to fail!

· Hungry/thirsty/low energy: Similarly to low sugar levels, when the body is out of homeostasis and in some state of discomfort it looks for quicker, easier avenues to feel good/comfortable again, regardless of the topic at hand.

5) Practice delaying gratification: Like anything, the more you practice something the better you get!

In conclusion, teach your children this valuable personal asset. Learn it and use it yourself to be able to lead by example. Relinquish the need for instant gratification on MOST things, not everything, every time as that’s not realistic and nor is it necessary because, let’s face it, that’s just not living.

Like a muscle is strengthened with use and atrophied with disuse, the trait of delay is strengthened with use and practice and weakened every time you give in to immediate gratification at the cost of some larger expense.

“I conceive that pleasures be avoided if greater pains be the consequence;
and pains be coveted that terminate in greater pleasures”
— Jeremy Bentham