In the original marshmallow experiment a child aged 3-7 was offered a choice between one marshmallow provided immediately or two marshmallows if he or she waited for around 15 minutes, during which the tester left the room and then returned. The original purpose of the study was to find out when self-control or willpower develops in children.
In over 600 children studied, a minority ate the marshmallow immediately. Of those who attempted to delay, one third deferred gratification long enough to get the second marshmallow. Age was a major determinant of deferred gratification, explained by the development of the executive function of the brain.
It is interesting to observe children taking part in marshmallow experiments. Placed in a room with nothing but a marshmallow on a plate, they instinctively look away and cover their eyes so as to avoid temptation, they fidget, and you can see the struggle they go through. Some stroke and lick their marshmallows, others just stuff their faces straight away. This is exactly what Mischel observed in his original study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1972.
What do the marshmallow experiment findings teach us?
Temptation is tricky. Adam and Eve could not resist it, and neither could Bill Clinton, if you care for a less biblical example. With Christmas season coming up, treats start to appear in offices, and it takes a hell of a willpower to resist a mince pie. (I’ve just failed.) But why is temptation so irresistible?
Mischel, talking at a How To Academy lecture, explained that it is the vividness, the immediate nature of a temptation that is its trump card. The future gratification (e.g. “If I don’t eat this mince pie now, I will look slimmer later.”) is imprecise and uncertain, by contrast.
One way to help yourself would be to remove temptation from your vicinity: if a colleague brings a batch of homemade brownies, tell her they are a bit stale so she does not tempt you again. (I am joking, of course, but you get the idea.)
Another idea is to paint the picture of ‘future marshmallows’ as bright as possible. Staying with food temptations, when offered a desert menu at a restaurant, close your eyes and visualise a bikini body or a ‘six-pack’. The waiter will get the hint and bring you a bill.
Mischel noted that chronic stress, the state many of us are in these days, accentuates the temptation to respond to immediate gratification preventing the executive function of our brains to give a slower, more reflective response. Have you ever demolished a whole bag of crisps or a bar of chocolate when you are stressed? I never seem to be able to resist doing that. According to Mischel, the trick is to take a deep breath, to slow down. Meditation would, of course, help, if you gave yourself permission to take time out.
The initial findings were subject to later, no less illuminating research. Mischel and his colleagues found that children, who at the age of four were able to delay gratification by seconds, were significantly more successful in their lives. They achieved higher SATs, went to university, achieved greater career heights and displayed greater social competence, higher resilience against lives’ setbacks and were less likely to be addicted to drugs.
If you have a few minutes, it’s worth watching a video of the marshmallow experiment on YouTube.