If you placed a marshmallow on a plate and put it in front of your child, with the promise that they will get a second marshmallow if they can wait 15 minutes before eating it, what do you think they would do? Turns out their response to this challenge may well be able to predict their future SAT scores, likelihood of finishing a university degree and even how competent they will be as adults.
A late 1960s study at Stanford by Walter Mischel used this exact scenario to see how well 4-6-year-olds were able to delay gratification. Footage taken of the children when the researcher left the room offers a poignant window into the complex mind of children: about a third of the kids ate the marshmallow right away, sometimes gobbling down the whole plate of treats from which is was offered. Others stared mournfully at the sugary treat, covered their eyes so they wouldn’t have to look at it, banged their heads on the table, pulled fretfully on their ponytails, stroked it like a stuffed animal.
In one variation on the experiment with an Oreo cookie, a little boy twists the cookie apart, eats the creamy filling and replaces it on the plate with a look of smug satisfaction (New York Times columnist David Brooks speculates in his book, The Social Animal, that this child probably grew up to be a U.S. senator).
About one-third of the children were somehow able to resist temptation for the full 15 minutes, and were rewarded with a second marshmallow for their self-control. Interesting to know, but not that helpful.
The really cool part came about 10 years later. The researcher had used his daughters’ nursery school classmates as his research subjects, and as they all got older, he idly followed up on their successes in high school. What he learned from casual conversations with his daughters prompted a full-scale follow-up research project with as many of the original 653 participants as he could reach.
It turned out that the “low delayers” (the kids who couldn’t wait the 15 minutes) had a significantly higher rate of behavioral problems in school and out, struggled in stressful situations, had trouble maintaining friendships and had lower SAT scores than their more self-disciplined counterparts. The kids who could successfully delay gratification in the experiment had SAT scores that were, on average, 210 points higher than the others.
Mischel continued to follow this set of kids into adulthood. By their early 30’s, they found that the kids who had been unable to exercise self-control with the marshmallows were more likely than the controlled kids to have weight problems in adulthood, and to have had problems with drugs.
What is it about control that’s so important? We know it is frequently cited as one of the important elements of resilience (see here for a post on coping and here for a post on connection). The American Academy of Pediatrics explains that “when children realize that they can control their decisions and actions, they’re more likely to know that they have what it takes to bounce back.”
So control is also related to competence and confidence. But it’s also about thinking creatively and critically, repressing immediate desires for a longer term goal. Dr. Mischel told the New Yorker magazine:
“What we’re really measuring with the marshmallows isn’t will power or self-control,” Mischel says. “It’s much more important than that. This task forces kids to find a way to make the situation work for them. They want the second marshmallow, but how can they get it? We can’t control the world, but we can control how we think about it.”
When the researchers looked closely to see how the children who successfully deferred their desire to gobble up the marshmallow managed it, they discovered these kids strategically refocused their attention away from the treat. They covered their eyes, they sang the Sesame Street theme song or pretended to play hide and seek. The key was not focusing on how delicious the marshmallow was. They’d somehow learned that it is very difficult to resist the object of your attention.
And this resistance to recklessness transfers to other things too. If you can resist spending all your time on Facebook or World of Warcraft, you can study for your SATs. If you can avoid binge drinking and partying every weekend, you’ll be better able to get into law school (and less likely to become an alcoholic). You can put aside money for a down payment on a house or your retirement savings account, rather than indulging in new clothes, vacations or a flat screen television. And so it goes.
Self-control is regarded as a critical factor for success in school; it is often seen as a more important indicator of academic performance than intelligence tests. When psychology professor Angela Lee Duckworth gave 8th graders a choice between a dollar right now and two dollars the following week, she found that the ability to delay gratification was a far better predictor of higher test scores than IQ scores.
Mischel has found that it is possible to teach kids some simple tricks to exercise self-control on experiments like the marshmallow one. If they are taught to imagine that the candy is made of plastic and not really edible or pretend the marshmallow is a cloud, the same kids who didn’t last 30 seconds could now wait the full 15 minutes.
These kind of strategies are unconsciously taught by parents who ask for occasional demonstrations of self-control by their kids. For example, my husband insists that no one in our family may begin to eat until everyone has sat down at the table. That can be mighty hard when you are little and hungry. Or else they are brought into a toy store to select a present for a friend, but nothing for themselves. Or perhaps they ask for a toy and are told they must wait for their birthday or for Christmas. Or they are told not to snack before dinner.
Through these small acts of measured self-denial, kids begin to learn that will power is just a matter of learning how to control your thoughts and attention (which is why regularly giving in to that temper tantrum in a toy store or at the candy display in the grocery store checkout may be a bad idea with much longer term consequences than you imagine).
But Mischel sees these sly acts of cognitive training as not quite enough, especially since there are big differences in how kids from different socio-economic classes are taught self-control. He told The New Yorker magazine:
“We should give marshmallows to every kindergartener,” he says. “We should say, ‘You see this marshmallow? You don’t have to eat it. You can wait. Here’s how.’ ”