I was recently reminded of the marshmallow experiment during a conversation with a friend of mine, and I figured it was interesting enough to share with you. The link above is a little sensationalized, but gets across the main idea of the study as follows:
“Stanford University psychology researcher Michael Mischel demonstrated how important self-discipline (the ability to delay immediate gratifiction in exchange for long term goal achievement) is to lifelong success. In a longitudinal study which began in the 1960s, he offered hungry 4-year-olds a marshmallow, but told them that if they could wait for the experimenter to return after running an errand, they could have two marshmallows.
Those who could wait the fifteen or twenty minutes for the experimenter to return would be demonstrating the ability to delay gratification and control impulse. About one-third of of the children grabbed the single marshmallow right away while some waited a little longer, and about one-third were able to wait 15 or 20 minutes for the researcher to return.
Years later when the children graduated from high school, the differences between the two groups were dramatic: the resisters were more positive, self-motivating, persistent in the face of difficulties, and able to delay gratification in pursuit of their goals. They had the habits of successful people which resulted in more successful marriages, higher incomes, greater career satisfaction, better health, and more fulfilling lives than most of the population.
Those having grabbed the marshmallow were more troubled, stubborn and indecisive, mistrustful, less self-confident, and still could not put off gratification. They had trouble subordinating immediate impulses to achieve long-range goals. When it was time to study for the big test, they tended to get distracted into doing activities that brought instant gratifciation This impulse followed them throughout their lives and resulted in unsucessful marriages, low job satisfaction and income, bad health, and frustrating lives. “
Now, I have yet to go back and see whether the authors accounted for this, but I see a number of reasons other than self-discipline as to why some children would wait for the second marshmallow and others wouldn’t.
- Maybe some of the children just don’t like marshmallows that much and thus aren’t as tempted- I have a friend that doesn’t like french fries, and I am very jealous of him, for example. Perhaps the students that aren’t enthralled by sugary goodness were the ones that paid attention rather than running around the classroom on a sugar high when they were little.
- Maybe some of the children only wanted one marshmallow, and therefore might as well have it sooner rather than later.
- Maybe some of the children were more optimistic about when the researcher would come back- from what I can remember, the time frame was not given to the kids, so those that were pessimistic and convinced that they were going to be abandoned forever ate the marshmallow whereas those that thought the researcher was just going out to pee or something were happy to wait. In this case, optimism leads to “better” outcomes. There’s a life less in there somewhere kids…
Despite the alternative explanations, I do believe that there is something to be said for the conclusion of the study as stated, and it does seem as though patient and thoughtful people win out in the long run, at least on average. The relevant question then, if we want people to be well-equipped to make “good” choices, is how does one teach patience? Furthermore, if we can’t teach patience, are there incentives that can substitute for patience? (Look for a follow up post on paying kids to get good grades, for example.)
On a tangential note, a friend sent me an article about Grag Mankiw’s assessment of Sonia Sotomayor being a spender rather than a saver that I found pretty amusing. Maybe Greg Mankiw, as a tenured professor and thus having the near ultimate in job security, is inefficiently oversaving….hmmm.