Marshmallows and SAT Scores

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What does it take to make a good s’more? As any professional will tell you: patience. That perfect marshmallow demands alertness and restraint to get that ever so slightly crisped and golden brown outside but a melted sugary dough inside. You can get it done fast (and potentially end up with charcoal on a stick), or you can get it done right.

The experiment

Perhaps inspired by the requisite precision and patience of s’more making, a Stanford professor (Walter Mischel) designed an experiment using marshmallows to study how well children could delay gratification. In the study, children were given the choice:

  1. Eat the marshmallow in front of them at any time once the interviewer leaves the room.
  2. Not eat the marshmallow, wait instead until the interviewer returns, and then get to eat the marshmallow and a second one as well.

The really amazing results came decades later through follow-up research on those same children: those who were able to wait longer when they were children (up to an impressive 15 minutes!) were more successful in life — including scoring, on average, 210 points higher on the SAT than the children who ate the marshmallow immediately.

Why it matters

The ability to delay gratification is not about IQ. It’s about EQ: the ability to restrain one’s actions and control one’s emotions. For instance, many successful children employed tactics to distract themselves from looking at the marshmallow in front of them as they waited. They understood their own desires and knew that they would need to divert their attention in order to overcome their natural impulse for an immediate treat.

All children — all people really — can and should work on self-discipline. Now, maybe more than ever, this skill to choose a larger reward in the future over a smaller reward in the present is increasingly rare and thus increasingly valuable. Getting an easy and continual deluge of dopamine has never been easier than in our current era of video games that reward players with digital awards for relatively quick gaming achievements and TikTok videos that teach us to swipe past videos that don’t entertain or hold our interest in the first second.

What we can do

Think of how hard it is for you to resist something you really want that is right in front of you. Now multiply that by 100. That’s how hard it is for most children to control themselves because they have not yet experienced as many of the dramatic benefits of delayed gratification and do not have the brain development to value future rewards as much. So they need help.

That means… being the bad guy. Granted, this is very (very, very) easy for me to say: I don’t have kids yet. So I am sure that when I do have children they will teach me lessons as well: it’s not that easy.

So I don’t speak from the experience of having children, but I do speak from the experience of teaching children. What does that experience show me on a nearly daily basis? It’s not rocket science. Those students who talk the most about video games, TikTok, or other immediately gratifying entertainment have — on average — less skill at both reading and mathematics. Not because they are inherently less skillful but because they are instead spending their time getting quick fixes for dopamine instead of pursuing activities that might not spike dopamine but will give them greater contentment, wisdom, and success in life, such as taking walks, reading, talking with others, and studying.

It’s natural

What is one commonality that not only all humans but in fact all creatures have? All creatures want to both protect and give advantages to their offspring. You can talk in evolutionary terms if you’d like: we act to propagate our genes. But in humans, it looks like this: I love my children, and I want the best for them. When you give them the gift of a digital distraction, is there anything more gratifying than seeing your child’s face alight with joy as they smile and then look you in the eyes with gratitude? That dopamine hit is better than video games. And yet by doing so we are introducing them to something that for some (potentially up to 19% of teenage boys) turns into repetitively pressing the button of a dopamine drip — their joy and gratitude turned into a fixation that will drive them to fight against you if you try to take it away.

I have never talked to one parent, ever, who has said that their child’s life is enriched by video games or TikTok. It just doesn’t happen. And yet it is very common for parents to ask me to talk to their children about their children’s overuse of digital entertainment. If you have a teen who spends a detrimental amount of time with digital distractions, it will be extremely hard to take those destructive distractions away. But, if you do so, you will prevail, it will be worth it, and your child will likely (much later) be grateful for it. Ultimately they want the same as you: the best possible future for themselves. But they might need help acting in accordance with what is best for them.

Life and marshmallows

What’s better than a marshmallow? A marshmallow with graham crackers and chocolate. What’s better than that? Soft, slightly melted milk chocolate and the warm density of a cotton candy cloud pressed firmly between two crunchy graham crackers.

You can have a “marshmallow on its own” life. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s good on its own.

Or you can have the best. But you need to work for it and wait for it. Is it worth it? Have a marshmallow on its own and then a s’more prepared to perfection and let me know.

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Addendum based on reader feedback: You can find additional research on the topic here, here, and here. There was one study published that found a smaller impact from delayed gratification, but the study was essentially designed to find a smaller result: they cut the maximum wait time from 15 minutes to 7 minutes, so they lost all of the data on the impact of being able to wait longer than 7 minutes. I would exercise caution before disregarding prior research that shows the larger impact of delayed gratification on success when the one contrary study did not seek to replicate prior research but to alter the prior experimental design considerably. Here is the most balanced take on the marshmallow experiment that I have seen: in short, delayed gratification is a skill that can be cultivated and that does greatly impact one’s probability for success, but poverty might detrimentally influence the cultivation of this ability. The research on delayed gratification also accords with what we know in our own lives: we know from personal experience that we often have to put in a lot of hard work before reaping any rewards. Thus, it’s a reasonable possibility that a greater ability to delay gratification likely leads to a higher probability of reaping greater rewards. Additionally, the ability to delay gratification has been linked to other beneficial outcomes as well, beyond what we might consider as leading to “success” but which are beneficial nonetheless.

Children’s tendency to delay gratification has been linked to long-term positive outcomes, including higher intelligence (Bembenutty and Karabenick, 2004Duckworth and Seligman, 2005), social responsibility and social competence (Mischel et al., 1989), and improved academic performance (Mischel et al., 1988Wulfert et al., 2002). Moreover, the ability to delay gratification has been identified as a protective factor against serious psychological and physical health problems, such as conduct disorders, antisocial behavior, hyperactivity, addictive problems (Mischel et al., 1989Moffitt et al., 2011Paulus et al., 2015) and obesity (Schlam et al., 2013). In addition, delayed gratification relates negatively to being convicted of a crime and having economic problems (Moffitt et al., 2011).

https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01649/full

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