Marshmallows are on my mind. We’re at the tail end of campfire s’mores season and have not yet moved into the hot-chocolate-and-marshmallow season, so I have a large untouched bag of marshmallows in my cupboard. Perhaps I’ll make Rice Krispie treats. But that’s not the reason I’m thinking of marshmallows. Marshmallows were brought to my attention when I recently re-read the results of the famous Stanford University Marshmallow study.
In a longitudinal study that began in the late 1960s, psychology researcher Michael Mischel used marshmallows and four-year-olds to demonstrate just how important the concept of delayed gratification was to lifelong success.
In his experiment, he offered hungry four-year-olds a marshmallow, but told them that if they could wait for the experimenter to return after an errand, they could have two marshmallows. Those who could wait for the experimenter to return would be showing that they could control their impulse and delay gratification. About a third of the children gobbled the marshmallow right away; another third waited a bit, but then ate the marshmallow; and the final third waited until the experimenter returned and were rewarded with the coveted two marshmallows.
Fourteen years later, when the children graduated from high school, the differences between the marshmallow-eaters and the marshmallow-waiters were dramatic. Those who waited for their marshmallow at four were more persistent and motivated as high school graduates. They were able to delay gratification to reach their goals. The marshmallow eaters, on the other hand, were more likely to be troubled, mistrustful and indecisive. They had difficulty holding down their impulses on the way to reach long-term goals, such as studying for a test was still weeks away. The results carried on after high school as well, with the marshmallow resisters reporting better marriages, landing better-paying jobs, and having higher levels of career satisfaction. Marshmallow eaters, on the other hand, were more likely to have unsuccessful marriages and be unhappy in their jobs.
Delaying gratification isn’t a value held dear by society as a whole. From soda and candy placed right next to the checkout counter to auto dealers who allow us to buy a car (a car!) with no money down, much of our economy is built on our refusal to delay our gratification.
In the entertainment sector, punch lines come fast and furious in most sit-coms, and over-the-top action is the rule in thrillers. There’s little need to wait for the funny or exciting part, or to work a bit to understand subtle or dry humor. Barry, a friend of mine who took his fifth grade boy to see the Blue Angels said his son and his friends were unimpressed with the show.
“I think they are used to seeing such amazing stunts and graphics up close in the movies and video games that they can’t even recognize something remarkable in real life,” he said.
Instant messaging, texting and an always-on cell phone mean that we rarely have to wait to get in contact with friends and family. And even the way we package food shows how little tolerance we have for waiting — instant rice; ready-made dinners; just-add-water.
But in our world of instant communication and fast food, we can’t ignore the marshmallow study’s startling results, because they say something important about how our children are going to turn out if we don’t teach them self-discipline and waiting. The study reminds us that even with all the technology around us, there is value in telling kids they will need to wait for the weekend to play video games; that they can’t go online until after they practice piano; that they won’t get a cell phone until high school. The marshmallow study reminds us that having a small child wait to ask a question until adults have finished talking is about more than politeness—it may be a survival skill. As we as parents learn to say “no” or “wait” to our children’s demands to purchase the newest jeans or the newest gadget; to be the first to see a movie or download a song, we are ensuring that they will better be able to wait (and work for) the important things in adult life.
As ironic as it may seem, our children’s future happiness is dependent not on us making them happy right now, but in our ability to help them learn to wait a bit to be happy. And we can’t delay in teaching them this. Because there was nothing fluffy about this marshmallow study.