In the late 1960s, Stanford professor Walter Mischel conducted a series of psychological studies. In these experiments, Mischel and his team studied hundreds of children around the ages of 4 and 5 years old. They revealed what is now believed to be one of the most important aspects for success in life, work, and health.
The Marshmallow Experiment
The experiment began with bringing each child into a separate room. The child took a seat, and a marshmallow was placed on the table in front of them. Then the researcher offered the child a deal.
The researcher told the child that he was going to leave the room. And if the child did not eat the marshmallow while he was away, the child would be rewarded with an extra marshmallow. But if the child decided to eat the single marshmallow on the table before the researcher came back, the child would not get a second one.
Simple choice: One reward now, or two rewards later.
The researcher left the room for fifteen minutes. And as you can imagine, looking at the children from the control room was rather entertaining for the researchers. Some of the children jumped out of their chair to eat the marshmallow seconds after the researcher left. Others bounced and wiggled on their chairs trying to resist themselves, but eventually caved minutes later. A few of the children did manage to wait the full fifteen minutes.
The results of this research were already published in 1972 under the name of The Marshmallow Experiment. But it was only years later that the research became famous.
Power of delayed gratification
As the years went by, the children from the experiment grew older. And the researchers conducted follow-up studies, tracking progress in several areas. What they found was surprising.
The children who were able to delay gratification in the experiment ended up having higher scores on SAT tests, lower levels of alcohol and drug abuse, a lower likelihood of obesity, better social skills and better responses to stress.
The follow-up studies on each child took place over 40 years. With each follow-up, the group who waited patiently for the second marshmallow got better scores in whatever ability they were measuring. This series of experiments proved that being able to delay gratification is critical for success.
Examples of this are common in our daily life:
- If you can delay the gratification of finishing your workout, you can do a few more reps in the gym and improve your strength.
- If you can delay the gratification of watching television, you can get more homework done and get better grades.
Success comes down to choosing the pain of discipline over the ease of distraction.
This brings us to the question: can this trait be learned? Or do some people naturally have more self-control? Are some people programmed for success?
Ability to delay gratification
Researchers at the University of Rochester decided to try to replicate the marshmallow experiment. But they did it with a twist. Before offering a child the marshmallow, the researchers split the kids into two groups and did an additional test.
The first group of children was exposed to deceptive circumstances. For example, the researcher gave the child a small sticker and promised to bring a selection of more stickers, but never did. Or the researcher gave them a small box of crayons and promised to bring bigger ones, but never did.
The second group of children experienced very reliable circumstances. These children did receive the bigger selection of stickers, and they did get the bigger crayons they were promised.
After this warm-up, the researchers conducted the traditional marshmallow experiment. As you can imagine, the previous tests had affected the outcomes. The children in the deceptive group had no reason to trust the researchers because of their earlier deceit. So, this group did not wait very long to eat the single marshmallow in front of them at the beginning of the experiment.
But the children in the second group had experienced the effects of delayed gratification. And their brains were trained to see it as a positive thing. Each time a researcher made a promise and then delivered on that promise, the child’s brain registered two things:
- I have the capability to wait.
- Waiting for gratification is worth it.
As a result, the second test group waited an average of 4 times longer than the first group.
The children’s ability to delay gratification and show self-control was not a trait that they already had. It was affected by the environment and experiences that surrounded them.
Becoming better at delayed gratification
Human behavior is complex, and one study on 4-year-olds does not mean we have figured out how everything works. But there is a valuable personal lesson in this study: if you want to succeed at something, you need to be disciplined and take action instead of doing what is easy succumbing to distractions.
Success in nearly every field requires you to ignore doing the easy thing and instead do something that is hard and focuses on rewards in the long run.
The most important point? Delayed gratification can be learned. If you are not good at it now, doesn’t mean you’ll never be good at it. You can train yourself to get better by making some small improvements. In the case of the children in the study, this happened by exposing them to a reliable environment where promises were actually delivered.
We can do the same. We can hone our ability to delay gratification — the same way we train our muscles in the gym. This is done just like the researchers did, by promising something and delivering. When this is repeated, our brains recognize that we are capable of waiting — and that it’s worth it to wait.