If you were told that you would get 2 marshmallows if you could wait for 15 minutes while 1 marshmallow was sitting in front of you – could you wait? What if you were between 4-6 years old? This was a study, called Stanford Marshmallow experiment, done in the late 1960s (of all the articles and blogs I read, the information varied a lot between all of them). This study has fascinated me from the first time I heard about it (Crucial Conversations- book & my blog), and somehow references to this study keep coming into my life.
The initial results were that about 30% of the children were able to wait the 15 minutes to receive the 2nd marshmallow; they weren’t told to not eat the first marshmallow, they could just with the consequences of not getting a second marshmallow. Yet, of the children who managed to wait, many years later were the ones who scored higher on their SATs and had longer lasting relationships – they had a higher resiliency than their peers who couldn’t stop themselves from eating the marshmallow before the 15 minutes were up.
What made the children who could wait different from those you didn’t? Often the children that resisted eating the marshmallow, found ways to distract themselves from the temptation sitting there – they looked at the ceiling and sang a song, cover their eyes, kicked the table, etc. – essentially not focusing on the marshmallow.
You might be able to glean then why these “long delayers” scored higher on their SATs and in general seemed to be more successful – they had the skills to put off pleasurable activities to accomplish things. They would be able to resist going to a party in order to stay in and study. Many people are talking about how this is self-control – and yes, it is, the self- control to delay gratification.
Every day we face temptations. How we respond to these are what matters – and now I tend to think about marshmallows. I don’t know that I would have managed to wait long enough to eat two of them as a child, yet this doesn’t mean I can’t stretch those self-control “muscles” now.
The scientists are continuing to study the original group and other studies on this also are active. There is some data to suggest that we can learn how to become “long-delayers” – and focus our attention away from the temptation and avoid giving in. I think this requires enough practice to have success – we need the positive reinforcement, even internally, to have the motivation to keep stretching that self-control muscle.
The marshmallow study is motivation for me – the idea pops up periodically and I then pause to consider what self-control might be applied. Sometimes it’s walking away from a tempting purchase for a period of time. Sometimes it’s putting things away before I sit down and relax. Sometimes it’s waiting for time to pass and see if the desire is real – like the temptation to eat. Sometimes it’s exercising when I don’t really feel like doing it – not procrastinating when it would be “easy.” In essence, I try to apply this to most areas of my life.
Can the marshmallow study be motivation for you too? How would you apply it to your own life and choices?