The Marshmallow Test
Marshmallow test is a study in psychology by Stanford professor Walter Mischel. The subjects of the experiment were nursery school students who were offered to choose a marshmallow and eat it right away or wait for 15 minutes until the experimenter returned. If they waited, they would get an extra treat.
The kids were tracked over time and some interesting observations were made. Mischel found that the kids who had resisted temptation and waited for a better deal, grew to be healthier, professionally more successful and had stable relationships- overall, they led a better quality life.
The first follow-up study done in 1988 showed that preschool children who delayed gratification, were described more than 10 years later by their parents as adolescents who were significantly more competent.
A second follow-up study, in 1990, showed that the ability to delay gratification also correlated with higher SAT scores.
The conclusion is that self control, patience and ability to restrain ones impulses from the immediate urges of self gratification are important factors for success and a fulfilling life.
Mischel concluded that the kids who resisted temptation used “strategic allocation of attention”:
Instead of getting obsessed with the marshmallow — the “hot stimulus” — the patient children distracted themselves by covering their eyes, pretending to play hide-and-seek underneath the desk, or singing songs from “Sesame Street.” Their desire wasn’t defeated — it was merely forgotten. “If you’re thinking about the marshmallow and how delicious it is, then you’re going to eat it,” Mischel says. “The key is to avoid thinking about it in the first place.”
The key is trading short-term gratifications for long term goals. In some normal situations, it’s easy to see that self control is important for success. For instance, the will to resist temptation of going to movie with friends and studying instead for an upcoming examination would lead to better grades. Today, people increasingly feel driven to check and post updates on facebook, at the cost of other more productive works. Facebook could well be your marshmallow.
Recently, new insights were thrown by Celeste Kidd of Rochester University that seem to plug some gaps into Mischel’s experiment. In her younger days, Kidd had the chance to work in shelters for the poor, homeless families. She began to wonder how children growing up in such a setting full of change and uncertainty, would respond to Mischel’s experiment. Kidd, based on her experience with the kids of poor families, felt that they would eat the marshmallows right away. This would not be because of kids lacking self control, but because very little in their upbringing had given them much reason to believe that adults would do what they said they would. Kidd therefore brings in the dimension of trust in the experiment.
Kidd’s own version of the marshmallow study was designed to test the effect of trust. First, the three- to five-year-olds in the study were primed to think of the researchers as either reliable or unreliable. In the first part of the study, the researchers handed over a piece of paper and a jar of used crayons, then asked a child to either use those crayons or wait for a better set of art supplies that they would bring in some time. In the second part of the study, the experimenter gave the child a small sticker and told the young subject to either use that one or wait for bigger, better stickers that they would bring in some time. For half the kids, the experimenter kept the promise, returning with a loaded tray of markers, crayons, and coloured pencils, then several big stickers. For the other half, the experimenter returned a few minutes later to say, apologetically, that there weren’t in fact any better art supplies or any better stickers. After this, the kids were given the marshmallow test. Nine out of the 14 kids in the reliable condition held out 15 minutes for a second marshmallow, while only one of the 14 in the unreliable condition did. If kids were unsure they were going to get a second marshmallow, they didn’t bother to wait.
As it turns out, Mischel himself has looked at the role trust and confidence play in a person’s ability to delay gratification. In some of his papers, he has hinted at the role of trust in a person’s choices.
Grit- A more important factor:
Angela Duckworth, assistant professor at University of Pennsylvania, found in a test that self control was not the most certain or determining factor for success. Her research focuses on a personality trait- grit, which is more certain and predictive of success. The perseverance and doggedness of individuals, i.e. their grit, determines how far they will go more accurately than their self control or intelligence. Those who don’t give up and stay with a goal till they achieve it are more likely to be successful. Gritty individuals identify their weaknesses and work on them to improve their performance. More talented individuals may not put in their best efforts resulting in less-than-expected outcomes. On the other hand, hard working people who are zealous and don’t give up may actually perform better.
This interesting TedX talk by Duckworth tells more about her research on grit.
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