Eileen Kern

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Willpower and Delayed Gratification

You may be familiar with the Marshmallow Experiment, an oft-referenced series of studies from the 1960s-70s in which “a child was offered a choice between one small reward provided immediately or two small rewards if they waited for a short period, approximately 15 minutes, during which the tester left the room and then returned.” A number of more-recent follow-up studies have drawn comparisons between the ability to hold out for the better reward and a number of more advantageous life results (most famously, Walter Mischel, the leader of this series of studies, tied willpower in the child-subjects to higher SAT scores in later life).

It seems that I’m not the only one who has been thinking about marshmallows and temptation recently: The Atlantic recently interviewed Mischel. In this interview, Mischel mentions his new book, The Marshmallow Test, and Mischel also clarifies what was really at stake for the child-subjects in the initial study:

First, it’s important that I say “the test” in quotes, because it didn’t start out as a “test” but a situation where we were studying the kinds of things that kids did naturally to make self-control easier or harder for them. Four-year-olds can be brilliantly imaginative about distracting themselves, turning their toes into piano keyboards, singing little songs, exploring their nasal orifices.

When I’ve encountered this study in “pop science” coverage, I’ve always worried that the conclusion many will draw from this study is that some people are just better at willpower than others–as though the study proves that excellent, strong-willed kids grow into excellent, strong-willed adults. (And everyone else is doomed? Perhaps.) But the Atlantic article suggests that this research may provide something much more powerful (and useful):

Mischel’s book draws on the marshmallow studies to explore how adults can master the same cognitive skills that kids use to distract themselves from the treat, when they encounter challenges in everyday life, from quitting smoking to overcoming a difficult breakup.

In short, success may be tied to successful coping mechanisms–not innate superiority.

But why am I writing about this? Because I see one other empowering message here:
It doesn’t always need to be about delayed gratification.

Today, if you were to offer me one mini-marshmallow, then tell me that if I waited for 15 minutes, you would give me another one, I would see this for what it’s worth: A pretty insignificant “prize” that, frankly, is about as good as one marshmallow, no prize (or even no marshmallows at all).

And there are other ways of looking at this test. Imagine I was offered a fruit tart instead–and if I waited for 15 minutes, I could have a second fruit tart.
Fruit Tart

Well, guess what: I would want a second fruit tart–but holding out for a second dessert would be a worse decision for my overall health, because typically the “best” amount of fruit tart hovers somewhere between 0 and 1 for any given eating session.

Typically, today I think about the idea of delayed gratification almost exclusively in the context of money. And it becomes trickier, too, because any money that I can save or can put into paying off loans would almost certainly be worth more in the long run in one of those two functions.

But it can’t be only about the number on the balance sheet. Sometimes, in the spirit of Treat Yo Self, it is a better coping mechanism to once in a while, eat that one little marshmallow early because you’ve weighed your options and, to you, one marshmallow now is better than two marshmallows later.

Don’t forget to save for retirement, pay down high-interest debts first, and spend time with your loved ones while they’re around to appreciate you.