THINK ABOUT IT The Famous Marshmallow Experiment

Dr. Don Meyer, PhD, is the President of Valley Forge Christian College

“The ability to discipline yourself to delay gratification in the short term in order to enjoy greater rewards in the long term is the indispensable pre-requisite for success.”

Brian Tracy

During the 1960’s and 1970’s Walter Mischel and his colleagues at Stanford University became fascinated by the strategies of preschool children to resist temptation. Their research was based on what four year olds did when given two options with a marshmallow.

They could either ring a bell at any point to call the experimenter and eat the marshmallow or they could wait until the experimenter returned about 15 minutes later and earn two marshmallows. The message was simple: receive a small reward now or a bigger reward later.

Some children immediately ate the marshmallow, whereas others delayed gratification and subsequently earned the two marshmallows. In follow-up experiments they found that children could use delaying techniques such as covering their eyes or singing songs to help them wait longer for the two marshmallows.

The children who waited longer were re-evaluated as teenagers and adults and they revealed a significant array of advantages over their peers. Their social competence and self-confidence were much higher. As adults, they were less likely to have drug problems or other addictive behaviors, or to get divorced.

Forty years after the first marshmallow test, a team led by BJ Casey of Cornell University recruited 59 of the original participants to research further if some of these characteristics continued. And they did.

The Famous Marshmallow Experiment is all about delayed gratification. Researchers today continue to claim that delayed gratification may be one of the greatest predictors of success among children, teenagers and even adults.

Think for a moment about life with or without goals. Suppose you are renting an apartment but someday you would like to live in your own house. You look at your budget and realize you only have so much money that you can set aside each month. For the right down payment it may take you seven years to save enough money.

Perhaps you would also enjoy taking a nice vacation to the beach. You love building sandcastles and eating pizza on the boardwalk, and just getting away for a time of renewal. But then you calculated the cost. To take that vacation (instant gratification) will mean deferring on the savings plan for a down payment, but to decline the vacation will mean saving enough for the down payment so you can buy your own house (deferred gratification).

This principle applies to earning a degree, playing an instrument, learning a language, or even planting a garden. I think that’s why someone said that tomorrow is often the busiest day of the week. How easy it is to eat the one marshmallow today because we are unwilling to wait to eat two marshmallows tomorrow.

Of course delayed gratification is painful. As the child says, “I want it all and I want it now.” But, as we mature, we realize some of the best things come later rather than earlier. Jim Rohn said, “Everyone must choose one of two pains: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret.”

It will always be discipline which helps us build the bridge between our goals and their fulfillment. I find huge inspiration early in the morning as I walk across our campus to encounter a student on their way to the practice room to learn to play an instrument. How easy it would have been for them to sleep (instant gratification) rather than to get up, get dressed, walk outside to go practice and become proficient for future performances (delayed gratification).

Rachael Taylor sadly but accurately said, “We live in a world of instant gratification, the world of the quick fix.” So the question before us has two parts: Do I choose one marshmallow today, or wait so I can have two marshmallows tomorrow?

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, PA

Responses can be emailed to president@vfcc.edu

Official page: Facebook.com/DrDonMeyer

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