Deferred Gratification – OR- The Marshmellow Test

DEFINITION:

Deferred gratification or delayed gratification is the ability to wait in order to obtain something that one wants. In formal terms, an individual should be able to calculate the net present value of future rewards and defer near-term rewards of lesser value. Animals don’t do this. This challenge is fundamental to human nature.

EXPERIMENT:

In the late nineteen-sixties, Carolyn, a four-year-old with long brown hair, was invited into a “game room” at the Bing Nursery School, on the campus of Stanford University. The room was little more than a large closet, containing a desk and a chair. Carolyn was asked to sit down in the chair and pick a treat from a tray of marshmallows, cookies, and pretzel sticks. Carolyn chose the marshmallow. A researcher then made Carolyn an offer: she could either eat one marshmallow right away or, if she was willing to wait while he stepped out for a few minutes, she could have two marshmallows when he returned. He said that if she rang a bell on the desk while he was away he would come running back, and she could eat one marshmallow but would forfeit the second. Then he left the room.

OBSERVATIONS:

Footage of these experiments, which were conducted over several years, is poignant, as the kids struggle to delay gratification for just a little bit longer. Some cover their eyes with their hands or turn around so they can’t see the tray. Others start kicking the desk, or tug on their pigtails, or stroke the marshmallow as if it were a tiny stuffed animal. Most struggled to resist the treat and held out for an average of less than three minutes. “A few kids ate the marshmallow right away,” Walter Mischel, the Stanford professor of psychology in charge of the experiment, remembers. “They didn’t even bother ringing the bell. Other kids would stare directly at the marshmallow and then ring the bell thirty seconds later.” About thirty per cent of the children successfully delayed gratification until the researcher returned, some fifteen minutes later. These kids wrestled with temptation but found a way to resist.

GOAL OF EXPERIMENT:

The initial goal of the experiment was to identify the mental processes that allowed some people to delay gratification while others simply surrendered and how this influenced behavior. What they discovered is that low delayers, the children who rang the bell quickly, seemed more likely to have behavioral problems, both in school and at home. They got lower S.A.T. scores. They struggled in stressful situations, often had trouble paying attention, and found it difficult to maintain friendships. The child who could wait fifteen minutes had an S.A.T. score that was, on average, two hundred and ten points higher than that of the kid who could wait only thirty seconds.

QUESTION:

Psychologists assumed from their observations that the children’s ability to wait depended on how badly they wanted the marshmallow. But it soon became obvious that every child craved the extra treat. What, then, determined self-control? Mischel’s conclusion, based on hundreds of hours of observation, was that the crucial skill was the “strategic allocation of attention.” Instead of getting obsessed with the marshmallow—the “hot stimulus”—the patient children distracted themselves by covering their eyes, pretending to play hide-and-seek underneath the desk, or singing songs from “Sesame Street.” Their desire wasn’t defeated—it was merely forgotten. “If you’re thinking about the marshmallow and how delicious it is, then you’re going to eat it,” Mischel says. “The key is to avoid thinking about it in the first place.”

CONCLUSIONS:

In adults, this skill is often referred to as metacognition, or thinking about thinking, and it’s what allows people to outsmart their shortcomings. For example, when Odysseus had himself tied to the ship’s mast, he was using some of the skills of metacognition: knowing he wouldn’t be able to resist the Sirens’ song, he made it impossible to give in.

Mischel’s large data set from various studies allowed him to see that children with a more accurate understanding of the workings of self-control were better able to delay gratification. “What’s interesting about four-year-olds is that they’re just figuring out the rules of thinking,” Mischel says. “The kids who couldn’t delay would often have the rules backwards. They would think that the best way to resist the marshmallow is to stare right at it, to keep a close eye on the goal. But that’s a terrible idea. If you do that, you’re going to ring the bell before I leave the room.”

According to Mischel, this view of will power also helps explain why the marshmallow task is such a powerfully predictive test. “If you can deal with hot emotions, then you can study for the S.A.T. instead of watching television,” Mischel says. “And you can save more money for retirement. It’s not just about marshmallows.”

Mischel found a shortcut. When he and his colleagues taught children a simple set of mental tricks—such as pretending that the candy is only a picture, surrounded by an imaginary frame—he dramatically improved their self-control. The kids who hadn’t been able to wait sixty seconds could now wait fifteen minutes. “All I’ve done is give them some tips from their mental user manual,” Mischel says. “Once you realize that will power is just a matter of learning how to control your attention and thoughts, you can really begin to increase it.”

This information was taken from the following site where you can read more: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/05/18/090518fa_fact_lehrer?printable=true&currentPage=6#ixzz0fXCrbwh9

MY CONCLUSIONS:
Teaching Deferred Gratification to infants and toddlers gives them a promotion into their future. It prepares them for a lifetime of choices that determines their success. We cannot always have what we want when we want it. As Parents we have the advantage of teaching our sons and daughters character, focus, and self determination. If you want to see what happens to our children when we do not parent responsibly, go to your local mall any day after school. Sit down on a bench and observe the “wandering herd”, who all look alike because they lack character and have failed to delay their choices.

About these ads
  1. August 6, 2010 at 7:58 am | #1

    This is a great essay!

    I have heard about the ‘don’t eat the marshmellow’ experiments before, but never about the mental tricks that can be taught to help improve people’s abilities to resist giving in to immediate gratification.

    If only someone had that me this stuff 42 years ago! :-)

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 41 other followers

%d bloggers like this: