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Success and Marshmallows

Yes, there’s a correlation. Well, maybe. 40 years ago, Walter Mischel, a psychologist specializing in personality theory and social psychology conducted an experiment. He put children at a desk with two marshmallows. The children had a choice, to eat one immediately, or to wait about 15 minutes to be able to eat two. The children either passed, earning the extra marshmallow, or failed, and just got the one. The children were then studied years later, and the gratification delayers were far better off, their SAT scores averaging 210 points higher. The instant gratifiers had higher BMI (body mass index) and were more likely to be drug users.

We have so many tests we are given throughout our lives, standardized testing starting in the early years at school. In the end, is it really possible to measure future success through this simple experiment? And if so, how do use this data once we accumulate it? Do we attempt to teach our children patience and the benefits of delayed gratification, or is this behavior so part of their nature, we need to just prepare for the inevitable? I offered my 12 year old the choice. Her response? “How about we wait till Friday, light a fire, and eat the whole bag.” Good answer.

Note, I was made aware of this experiment through a Forbes article, How To Raise Financially Responsible Children,and after a bit of searching found a more in depth piece at The New Yorker, Don’t, The secret of self-control. If this story piques your interest, both articles are interesting reading.

FTC disclaimer – I received no marshmallows or any compensation from any marshmallow companies for this article.

  • Anji January 26, 2011, 4:31 am

    I’ve seen videos of this. What about the way the children have been brought up? I know that I would have done exactly as I was told, because I had to be ‘a good girl’ all the time (which lead to problems later as I couldn’t say ‘no’)

  • JOE January 26, 2011, 7:15 am

    One thing I never saw was the full data set. I didn’t notice where any numbers were listed or how adult “success” was really measured, the study seemed interesting but anecdotal.

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