Self-control: The Marshmallow Test

Have you ever bought a bar of chocolate, thinking you’ll eat some of it today and leave the rest for tomorrow, only to be empty handed a couple of hours later? Have you found yourself buying something on sale that you know you don’t really need, but couldn’t miss the chance? Have you overreacted in an argument, snapping at your roommate, to later realize you looked like a fool? Or, on the other hand, are you good at keeping a hold of yourself and your impulses? We often hear people describing themselves as impulsive, and rarely see this as an undoubtedly negative trait. After all, impulsiveness and spontaneity, as personality traits, are not that far from each other, and spontaneity is associated with fun and adventure. But how important could it really be, to be able to restrain oneself from acting on impulses?

Walter Mischel is a famous psychologist best known for the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment, or Marshmallow Test – a series of studies he led in the late 1960s and early 1970s on delayed gratification, that show how important it is to be able to restrain emotions and delay impulse.

In these studies, children aged four to six were presented with a difficult challenge. They could either have a candy (be it a marshmallow, cookie, or whatever the kid seemed to like) right then and there, or wait fifteen to twenty minutes and get two. Some of the children were able to wait for what, for any four to six year old faced with this kind of situation, must have felt like a lifetime. Most of those who succeeded managed to do so by distracting themselves or switching the focus off the bait that was sitting on the table -they kicked the table, talked to themselves, closed their eyes, turned around, etc. Some tried to wait but failed within minutes. Some ate the marshmallow before the experimenter even left the room, or barely a few seconds after.

What do you think your four year old self would have done? And, how significant do you think that answer could prove to be? While you consider your answer, take a look at this video – one of many replications of the marshmallow test – and see for yourself how these kids struggle with themselves and their temptations.

Follow-up studies

As it turns out, whatever choice a child made was, indeed, an indicator not only of their character, but of the trajectory he or she would likely take through life, as shown by the follow-up studies, which recognized a large gap between those who had resisted temptation and those who had not.
The same children that faced the difficult decision back in the late 1960s were tracked down in their adolescence, some twelve to fourteen years later, and Mischel found striking correlations between the results of the Marshmallow Test and the success of the children in their teens. Those who had resisted temptation were not only more competent, socially and emotionally, but also professionally, as shown by the second follow-up study in the 1990s, where a correlation was established between the ability to delay gratification and higher SAT scores.

The now adolescents who managed to wait for that excruciatingly long time in their childhood proved to be more self-assertive and better able to cope with stress, pressure, and the frustrations of life. They were more likely to embrace challenges and pursue their goals rather than giving up in the face of difficulties. They were more self-reliant, independent, confident, reliable, and trustworthy. They took initiative and started projects. They were still able to put off gratification in pursuit of their goals.

The kids who grabbed for the marshmallow were, in adolescence, more likely to avoid or seem uncomfortable in social situations; they were more stubborn and indecisive; more prone to distress and being upset by frustrations. Moreover, they were more likely to have a negative image of themselves; to see or think of themselves as unworthy. They were more disposed to feelings of jealousy, mistrust, resentfulness, and envy; to overreact to irritations, to become immobilized by stress or fear, to provoke arguments and fights due to the sharp temper they react with. They were more prone to the use of drugs or a life of delinquency. Years later, they still were unable to delay gratification.

According to evaluations made by their parents, those who waited patiently at age four were, twelve or fourteen years later, better able to express themselves, to use and respond to reason, to make plans and follow through, to concentrate, and more willing to learn. By the time the second follow-up study came around and SAT scores were compared, those who eagerly grabbed for the prize had an average verbal score of 524 against an average of 610 of their more patient peers, and a quantitative score of 528 against a score of 652.

Telling results

How children did on the Marshmallow Test at age four proved to be twice as strong a predictor of what their SAT scores would be as an IQ test at age four –an IQ test becomes a more significant predictor of SAT results only after children learn to read. This leads to the conclusion that the ability to delay gratification contributes strongly to intellectual potential in a different way than IQ does. This may be good news for many: some argue that IQ cannot be changed or significantly influenced, representing an unyielding limitation on a child’s life potential, but there is sufficient evidence that emotional skills such as impulse control can be learned, shaped and improved.

Your intelligence can take you a long way. If you are blessed with a brain that works wonders around numbers, can memorize important dates without much effort, or solves problems by seeing connections where others fail to, you have some of the most important tools in the road to success. But having the tools doesn’t mean you know how to use them. The ability to postpone gratification may not strike as a strong determinant for success at first glance, but a seemingly harmless result at age four develops into a wide range of social and emotional competences further down in life. Resisting impulse is the root of all emotional self-control. It allows you to take a deep breath and think of a better answer when your boss snaps at you; to push through those last hours of work in order to finish the project and meet the deadline; to keep your hands off that bar of chocolate at night; to write a blog about resisting impulse when the weather is finally nice in Marburg and you’d rather be out, having a BBQ with your friends.

Intelligence can take you a long way, but to be able to reap its benefits and rejoice in your success, you have to be able to harness it and direct it towards your goals -and that takes self-control.

 

References:

  • Goleman, D. (1995): “Emotional Intelligence” Bantam Books.
  • Kahneman, D. (2011): “Thinking, Fast and Slow” Penguin Books.
  • Mischel, W., Shoda, Y., Peake, P. K., (1990): “Predicting Adolescent Cognitive and Self-Regulatory Competencies From Preschool Delay of Gratification: Identifying Diagnostic Conditions” Developmental Psychology, 26, 6, pp. 978-86. [https://bingschool.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/publications/115-dev_psych_1990.pdf]

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