Key to Life Success – Wait for Two Marshmallows?

It’s true. At least, according to a revealing long-term study by Stanford University on personality.

Have you ever battled with self-control?

It started in the late 1960s at the Bing Nursery School, on the campus of Stanford University.

In total, 653 kids were individually taken into a “game room” at the nursery. The room itself was small and had a desk and chair for the child to sit at. When seated, each child was given one marshmallow.

Then, the researchers made the same offer to each kid:

  1. Eat the marshmallow right away.
  2. Wait to eat the marshmallow, while the researcher stepped out of the room. When the researcher returned, the child could then have a second marshmallow. Eating the first marshmallow, before the researcher returned, would automatically forfeit the second.

As you can imagine, most kids had trouble with this one. The video footage of the study is telling… kids closing their eyes… others intently staring at the marshmallow… some pretending it wasn’t there… yet others would play hide and seek with the desk to distract themselves until the researcher returned.

Around seventy percent of the children could not resist temptation and never got their second marshmallow. The remaining thirty percent somehow found a way to resist.

Here’s Where Things Get Really Interesting

Walter Mischel, the psychology professor at Stanford in charge of the study, followed up on the 653 kids a decade later.

He found that the kids who could not wait for the second marshmallow all seemed to have behavioral problems. They couldn’t seem to focus. They had lower S.A.T scores. They struggled emotionally and had trouble dealing with stressful situations. They also had trouble maintaining relationships.

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Those who could delay gratification reported almost the exact opposite, including S.A.T scores that were 210 points higher on average.

Fast-forward another 15 years: Mischel continued his follow-up of the original participants, now in their thirties.

Again, those who couldn’t wait for the second marshmallow reported being unhappy with their lives. Many bounced from job to job. They had huge amounts of financial stress. Had trouble dealing with their emotions and achieving their goals. Had trouble maintaining relationships. Some even reported that they’d battled with drug addictions.

In comparison, the folks with self-control reported more fulfilling lives. Had their finances under control. They had satisfying careers and great, long-lasting relationships. And on average, they earned higher incomes.

So what’s the takeaway here? Delaying gratification is definitely a key to success.

Running on impulse 24/7 is a surefire recipe for disaster.

Live for the Moment?

While it certainly can be fun to just “go with the flow” and live for the moment, it is definitely a short-sighted life philosophy to live by.

Sure, there are times when you should hang loose and choose the path of instant gratification. But it should be the exception, not the rule.

As the Jesuit priest and philosopher Baltazar Gracian once said, “Let the first impulse pass. Wait for the second.”

So if you’ve been having trouble getting what you want out of life, take a hard look at yourself. Take a self-inventory and see where you’ve been choosing instant gratification versus the “right” thing to do.

For example, if you’re trying to lose weight, do you choose to eat junk food instead of what you know you should be eating? Or do you skip out on going to the gym in exchange for watching the latest reality show or hanging out with friends? You get the idea.

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This awareness alone will help you develop self-control.

Learn to Change Your Focus

So exactly how did the kids who avoided temptation do it?

Simple: by changing their focus. It’s not that they somehow lost their desire for the marshmallow. They just changed their focus and “forgot” about it, until the researcher returned.

Years later, Mischel tested this theory, by recreating the experiment. Except for this time, he taught the kids a simple way to change their mental focus towards the marshmallow.

The kids were told to pretend that the marshmallow wasn’t real. That it was only a picture surrounded by an imaginary frame.

This simple change in perspective dramatically increased the percentage of children who displayed self-control.

And it’s a testament to how important it is to learn how to focus your mind’s attention on what you want.

So tell me, have you ever battled with self-control? Did you find a way around it and delay instant gratification? Do you know someone who could turn his or her life for the better if he or she could just exercise a little self-control?  If you do, please tell me about it in the comments below…

Source:  Shoda, Yuichi; Mischel, Walter; Peake, Philip K. (1990). “Predicting Adolescent Cognitive and Self-Regulatory Competencies from Preschool Delay of Gratification: Identifying Diagnostic Conditions”. Developmental Psychology 26 (6): 978–986.

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