Many important parts of life are worth waiting for. But how long do you think you can wait for something that you really want? In the late 1960s, this idea about human behavior was tested. The Marshmallow Experiment examined the ability of preschool children to resist the urge to enjoy something that they wanted immediately; this concept is known as instant gratification. It’s named after the treat used as the reward in the original study.
It took place at the Bing Nursery School at Stanford University in California. Walter Mischel and his colleagues conducted a series of experiments with over 600 children, ranging in age from three to five years old.
During this experiment, children were left in a room alone with a sweet treat in front of them. They were given two alternatives – eat the treat in front of them immediately or wait for 15 minutes to eat the treat. But, if they waited, the children would be rewarded with two treats.
Even though a majority of the children indicated that they could wait, in that short span of time, most of the group struggled. After less than 15 minutes, most of the children gave up and ate the treat. For the lesser number of children who could wait, they still exhibited signs of struggle. These children usually employed methods that allowed them to avoid seeing the treat by covering their eyes, purposefully looking elsewhere instead of at the treat, or facing away from the treat altogether.
The trial results were groundbreaking. The children who delayed their gratification by using avoidance and other tactics were significantly less prone to obesity. In addition, these children were less likely to develop addictive behavior or drug addiction. Lastly, they were able to develop better behavioral patterns by the time they arrived in their teen years that helped them stay out of trouble. Overall, the four-year-olds who were able to delay gratification had chances of being more successful later in life than the children who had trouble delaying their gratification.
The Marshmallow Experiment had a profound impact on psychology and society. It has been cited as evidence for the importance of self-control and delayed gratification in a variety of contexts, from education to personal finance to parenting.
However, the experiment has also been criticized for its limitations. Some researchers have argued that the test is culturally biased and may not be applicable in all contexts. Others have suggested that the test may not take into account the effects of socioeconomic status on self-control.
“Once you realize that willpower is just a matter of learning how to control your attention and thoughts, you can really begin to increase it.” – Walter Mischel
“If you can deal with hot emotions, then you can study for the S.A.T. instead of watching television, and you can save more money for retirement. It’s not just about marshmallows.” – Walter Mischel
“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” – Marcus Aurelius
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