Delayed Gratification ~ The Marshmallow Experiment

Posted by Gary Court on 3/1/2016 8:00:00 AM

Dr. Walter Mischel, Stanford University conducted an experiment with young children, at the Bing Nursery School at Stanford, in the nineteen-sixties.

During his experiments, Mischel and his team tested hundreds of children — most of them around the ages of 4 and 5 years old — and revealed what is now believed to be one of the most important characteristics for success in health, work, and life.

The experiment began by bringing each child into a private room, sitting them down in a chair, and placing a marshmallow on the table in front of him or her. 

At this point, the researcher offered a deal to the child.

The researcher told the child that he was going to leave the room and that if  the child did not eat the marshmallow while he was away, then the child would be rewarded with a second marshmallow. However, if the child decided to eat the first one before the researcher came back, then he or she would not get a second marshmallow.

So the choice was simple: one treat right now or two treats later.The researcher left the room for 15 minutes.

As you can imagine, the footage of the children waiting alone in the room was rather entertaining.  (You can see these on youtube!)  Some kids jumped up and ate the first marshmallow as soon as the researcher closed the door. Others wiggled and bounced and scooted in their chairs as they tried to restrain themselves, but eventually gave in to temptation a few minutes later. And finally, a few of the children did manage to wait the entire time.

The longer a child delayed gratification, Mischel found—that is, the longer she was able to wait—the better she would fare later in life at numerous measures of what we now call executive function. She would perform better academically, earn more money, and be healthier and happier. She would also be more likely to avoid a number of negative outcomes, including jail time, and drug use.  Those who delayed gratification had lower BMI scores and obesity rates, higher SAT scores, lower divorce rates. 

Success usually comes down to choosing the pain of discipline over the ease of distraction. And that’s exactly what delayed gratification is all about.  If one can delay gratification one usually can sustain effort and deal with frustrations more easily than those who cannot demonstrate self-discipline.