Posts tagged delayed gratification

marshmallow recipe for success

i’ve been listening to radiolab (this american life‘s scientist cousin) ever since my brother introduced me to it over christmas last year.  as with most things, i go in streaks where i don’t listen to it (or simply forget about it) for weeks, and then suddenly listen to a bunch of episodes back to back.  tonight was one such night when i’ve listened to 4 so far, and the night is still young (and there are plenty of rows left to knit on this curtain…).

the last episode i listened to was called “Mischel’s Marshmallows”, about this 40-year-long experiment that has been studying the relationship between four year olds’ ability to delay gratification, and how successful they become later in life.

the experiment starts with 500 four-year-olds in the 1960’s – each is taken into an empty room and given a marshmallow.  they are told that they can eat that one marshmallow now, or, if they wait, they can have two marshmallows. then they are left in the room while people watch their struggle with temptation through a two-way mirror (apparently, wildly entertaining).

i remember learning about this experiment in psychology 101, but i didn’t remember some of the conclusions that were drawn from it.  first, there appears to be evidence that human brains go through a cognitive development around the age of 4 that gives them the ability to delay gratification – ie will power (3 year-olds couldn’t resist the marshmallowy temptation).  ok, fine.

however, they also started drawing correlations between the existence of will power at age 4, and general success (scholastic aptitude, physical fitness, career) as those 4yo’s grew up; as well as the lack of will-power at age 4, and general non-success growing up (they cited getting suspended from school, obesity, “at-risk” youth, etc.).  namely – the kids who didn’t cave in to the marshmallow, grew up to be smart and successful (by whatever mainstream standards that is measured); and those who couldn’t resist, were deemed failures.

i can’t say anything for sure about the experiment itself’s official conclusions, but i was disappointed with how radiolab presented these correlations.  there’s the famous scientific principle that correlation does not equal causation, but the show seemed to get dangerously close to ignoring that.

the experiment seemed to wholly ignore any sort of assessment of the subject’s life when they were four, at the beginning of the experiment.  and in fact, the whole thing was an afterthought – Mischel decided to re-study the original subjects five or six years after the original test after a casual conversation with his daughters which seemed to reveal that the kids who had failed the temptation test were not doing as well in school as those who had succeeded (in the daughters’ estimation).  so presumably no data was collected about the kids originally – only in subsequent tests.  so we have no idea how successful or unsuccessful the kids were doing when they originally took the test.

i’m no scientist, and not a parent (unless you count my dog spiff), but it seems pretty evident to me that the kids’ environment growing up must play a significant role in whether or not a kid is able to exhibit will-power at the age of four.  and this most likely sets them up on a life path… “successful” or “unsuccessful” (and, i would argue – many places inbetween, outside of, etc.).  there are so many factors in the kids’ lives – parenting methods, class, race, location, etc. – that impact how many opportunities kids have to learn about will power and its possible benefits, as well as tools for resisting the need for instant gratification.  it is really a shame that the experiment didn’t have data like this about the original four-year-old subjects.

i also wonder about kids who gained will power later than 4 years old.  if they were simply “late will-power bloomers”, did that diminish their rate of success later in life?  was their fate really determined by whether or not they had it or not at age 4?

this experiment certainly is interesting, though, in how it shows just how early some life habits and learned tools impact a person’s overall path in life.  that a simple will power test at the age of 4 can be a pretty reliable indicator of how much a person has learned so far, and is likely to carry with them throughout life, is pretty amazing.  human development is crazy if you ask me.

this also begs the question – what would a will-power test look like for adults?  how do we measure the ability to delay gratification later in life?  billions of dollars in advertising are spent specifically to wage war on people’s will power, and our economy thrives on people’s need for instant gratification.  what would the wall street bailouts say about bonus recipients?

i bet they all ate the marshmallow when they were little.

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