In 1972, Walter Mischel, a psychologist at Stanford University, conducted what has now become a famous experiment in human behavior—the “Marshmallow Test.” In a 2009 interview for The New Yorker, Mischel told Jonah Lehrer that he had been hired by the Peace Corps in the 1960s to consult on their screening methods and had concluded that the personality tests Peace Corps volunteers had been given were completely ineffective at predicting how the volunteers would actually behave once they were sent out to work. Mischel began to think that it wasn’t just that the tests were poorly designed, but that personality traits as a whole were difficult to quantify and test in an empirical way.
Mischel decided that self–control, however, was something that could be tested. He came up with the “Marshmallow Test” as an experiment to determine when in childhood self–control developed and what enabled some children to delay gratification while others did not. He tested six hundred fifty–three preschoolers ranging in ages from four to six by offering a choice of three treats—a marshmallow, a cookie, or a pretzel. Each child was told they could have one of their desired treat immediately, or if they would wait until the administrator returned, they could have two (“The Secret of Self–Control”, Jonah Lehrer).
The results of the initial study were interesting on their own. Only one–third of the children were able to wait the full fifteen minutes and gain the second treat. On average, the other two–thirds were not able to wait even three minutes. While waiting, the children used various techniques to resist the impulse to eat their treat—some turned around or covered their faces with their hands, others sang Sesame Street songs or fidgeted with their clothes or hair, while still others stared at, sniffed or poked their marshmallows.
Mischel’s own children attended the preschool, and remained friends with some of the test subjects. As the years passed, Mischel, through conversations with his children, noticed an interesting trend in the now adolescent participants. Those who had been able to wait fifteen minutes performed better academically than those who had not been able to wait. A formal follow–up study corroborated the anecdotal evidence he had seen, and demonstrated that the “high delayers” had better grades, better relationships with peers and teachers, and better standardized test results, outscoring their marshmallow eating peers by an average of two hundred and ten points on the S.A.T. (“The Secret of Self–Control”, Jonah Lehrer).
But what do marshmallows and preschoolers have to do with the real world? Much of our modern society is geared toward eliminating the need to wait. We want what we want, and we want it now. Faster internet and cell phone connections transmit information almost instantaneously. Social networking sites allow people to hear up–to–the–minute news from their friends day and night. Breaking news is now often heard first through social media site, Twitter, as eyewitnesses use their phones to post their version of events in video, pictures and one hundred and forty characters or less. A Pew Research Center survey in 2006 revealed that one in five Americans eats fast food two or more times a week—and it’s not the high quality ingredients and skilled chefs who are attracting that many repeat customers. It’s the ease, convenience, and speed of picking up a meal in a few minutes’ time. The “Watch Instantly” option for online movie mogul Netflix uses one–third of all internet bandwidth in the US, as more than 20 million Americans use the site to stream movies and television shows whenever they want.
With so many convenient ways to have our desires fulfilled instantly, why wait? What is the point? The ever present flood of information available on smart phones and computers may be adversely affecting our attention spans. There is always another link you can click, another Facebook status update, a new email. In a February 2002 BBC article “Turning into digital goldfish”, Ted Selker of MIT says, “Our attention span gets affected by the way we do things…If we spend our time flitting from one thing to another on the web, we can get into a habit of not concentrating.” Or as the article’s author puts it, “The addictive nature of web browsing can leave you with an attention span of nine seconds—the same as a goldfish.”
Linton Weeks describes some other problems with our instant society in “Impatient Nation: I Can’t Wait for You to Read This.” He writes, “In the past few decades we have become the Impatient Nation. We want quick answers to complex problems—the economy, diseases, personal relations. We: Speed date. Eat fast food. Use the self–checkout lines in grocery stores. Try the ‘one weekend’ diet. Pay extra for overnight shipping. Honk when the light turns green. Thrive or dive on quarterly earnings reports. Speak in half sentences….We cut corners, take shortcuts. We txt.” He quotes a 2004 Journal of Biosocial Science study which correlated increasing American impatience with increasing American Body Mass Index (BMI), the height–weight ratio used to define obesity. He also refers to a 2003 Journal of the American Medical Association study that links impatience with high blood pressure, and a 2007 Science Daily Report that showed impatient people were more likely to be poor money managers. Weeks concludes that “impatience can make people tense, fat and broke.”
Patience is necessary for self–control. In his February 2009 TED talk, Joachim de Posada calls delayed gratification “the most important factor for success.” He redid the Marshmallow Test in Columbia with almost identical results to the original Stanford test—only one in three preschoolers was able to hold out for the promised second marshmallow. Psychologist and author of Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman calls this ability to suppress impulses the companion to free will—“free won’t.” Goleman defines “free won’t” as “the capacity to squelch an impulse.” It is what enables us to make good decisions. Acting on impulse is not really a decision at all. When we lose the ability to divert our own attention from grabbing whatever we want, we lose the ability to pause long enough to consider long–term consequences. Then you have a world full of grown–up toddlers. A two–year–old sees something shiny and wants to grab it. He doesn’t have the understanding or the self–discipline to realize a knife could cut him. His parents have to deny him the opportunity to act on his impulse, and redirect his attention to something safe, in order to protect him. As we mature, we learn techniques to tell ourselves “no” and direct our attention elsewhere. This self–denial is associated with a healthy dorsal fronto–median cortex, the same region of the brain, which when unhealthy, is associated with addictions and attention deficit disorders (“Free won’t: the marshmallow test revisited”, Daniel Goleman).
As Mischel says, if you can delay having what you want “then you can study for the S.A.T. instead of watching television. And you can save more money for retirement. It’s not just about marshmallows.” The best part is that self–control is a skill. It improves with practice. Mischel is still following that original group of preschoolers, and says that he is most interested now in learning from the group who were not able to wait as children, but have become adept at it as adults. It is never too late to develop this ability.
As with most vital social skills, the training begins at home. “This is where your parents are important,” Mischel says. “Have they established rituals that force you to delay on a daily basis?” When parents require their children to wait until mealtime to eat, to practice the piano before playing a computer game or to set aside a part of their allowance as savings, the parents are strengthening the part of their children’s brains that will help them to choose healthy foods, complete projects on time and live within their means as adults (“The secret of self–control”).
Mischel’s original Marshmallow Test was predictive of the future success of its participants because the ability to deny the self, think beyond the moment and defer gratification is what allows us to, in the moment, choose the best course for the future. In a technological age that places a premium on instant gratification, young and old alike need to practice self–control and consciously choose not to eat the marshmallow just yet.
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