Marshmallow Eaters

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Years ago the psychologist Walter Mischel wanted to see what happened when he put toddlers together with marshmallow.  In a now famous study conducted at Stanford University’s in-house pre-school , he sat each four year old at a table, put one marshmallows and told them if they could wait till the experimenter came back, they would get to eat two marshmallows.   Some of the tikes were able to wait while others gobbled up the treat as soon as he left the room. What made this study one for the ages was when years later Mischel decided to see how these kids fared. It turns out that the gobblers did not do as well as their more disciplined counterparts on a number of measures. One of the most striking was their SAT scores—the waiters scored on average 210 points higher than the gobblers!

How could waiting to eat a marshmallow correlate to being successful in life? Actually, it is a powerful predictor because Mischel was studying something called ‘delayed gratification.’  Delayed gratification is being able to trade patience and hard work now for the promise of a great reward later. This is the moral of the folktale “Little Red Hen.” All of her barnyard friends wanted the instant pleasure of hanging out in the sun while she toiled. However, later on, she was warm and cozy in her house while they went cold and hungry.

I am worried that we are raising a generation of marshmallow eaters.  They were conditioned early on by our need to do everything for them, to sweep any obstacles from their path, to support their self-esteem with trophies for just participating.   This belief that they can have it all, have it now, without applying much effort, has been reinforced by the digital age:  you want a song—download it, want to talk to someone, text them.  As a young boy a week seemed like an eternity to wait for the next Batman episode (Same Bat Time, Same Bat Channel).   Young people now stay up all night binge watching their favorite series on Netflix.

Good things come to those who wait.  But waiting is not easy.  Waiting means being able to tolerate all of discomfort that comes as you figure out how to organize a paper, struggle with a new piece of music, or master a new skill. In fact, waiting is a skill.

For more about the Mischel, including some of the criticism it has received, check out:

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