Wednesday, June 22

Don't Eat the Marshmallow

I love Mental Floss So when I ran across an awesome study of the habit of delayed gratification done using marshmallows while reading Money Secrets of the Amish (which I reviewed here) I was not at all surprised to find that MF knew all about it!

Apparently, this is a pretty famous study, but since I'd never heard about it before I wanted to share it with you. Here's the basic outline:
In the late 1960s, researchers at Stanford devised what’s now known as the “marshmallow test” to test participants’ ability to defer gratification. The test went like this: put a marshmallow on the table in front of a four-year-old; tell the child that he or she can either eat the marshmallow now, or leave it uneaten for a while (15-20 minutes) and receive a second marshmallow at the end of the test... This a test of delayed gratification — the ability for a person to put off the instant thrill of one marshmallow for the promise of two marshmallows down the road. What’s interesting is that the test is apparently predictive of future life success.

[Researchers] noticed that low delayers, the children who rang the bell quickly, seemed more likely to have behavioral problems, both in school and at home. They got lower S.A.T. scores. They struggled in stressful situations, often had trouble paying attention, and found it difficult to maintain friendships. The child who could wait fifteen minutes had an S.A.T. score that was, on average, two hundred and ten points higher than that of the kid who could wait only thirty seconds.

Why is this fascinating? Because success was all about knowing the rules.

When kids who had almost no ability to delay gratification were taught a few simple tricks or easy new thinking patterns, they were able to wait the full 15 minutes! Teaching children the habit of distracting themselves from the marshmallow, or to pretend that the treat was a picture surrounded by an imaginary frame (among other options) allowed them to make more profitable choices (holding out for the second marshmallow).

It's rather challenging to face the reality that we can control much more in our lives than we usually give ourselves credit for. Consciously building in ourselves healthy, smart patterns of thinking and behaving can revolutionize how we live. I'm not sure if that's intimidating or empowering, but it's an intriguing idea to roll around one's head on a grey, rainy morning like this one.

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