Thursday, January 19, 2017

Insights from the Marshmallow Experiment

"Sometimes when I consider what tremendous consequences come from little things... I am tempted to think there are no little things." ~ Barton Sutter

The other day I stumbled on an article about a Stanford research project that attempted to correlate a single aspect of human behavior as an indicator for future success or failure. The series of studies conducted by professor Walter Mischel came to be known as The Marshmallow Experiment.

The experiment was essentially about deferred gratification as a predictor of future achievement. James Clear describes the setup like this.

The experiment began by bringing each child into a private room, sitting them down in a chair, and placing a marshmallow on the table in front of them.

At this point, the researcher offered a deal to the child.

The researcher told the child that he was going to leave the room and that if the child did not eat the marshmallow while he was away, then they would be rewarded with a second marshmallow. However, if the child decided to eat the first one before the researcher came back, then they would not get a second marshmallow.

The researcher would leave for 15 minutes and then return. The team filmed the kids fidgeting, staring, and frequently succumbing.

What makes the experiment famous is that these children were then checked in on for the next 40 years. Mr. Clear summarizes the results:

The children who were willing to delay gratification and waited to receive the second marshmallow ended up having higher SAT scores, lower levels of substance abuse, lower likelihood of obesity, better responses to stress, better social skills as reported by their parents, and generally better scores in a range of other life measures.

* * * *

Take a minute to reflect on the ramifications of this experiment. And then consider this.

Can delayed gratification be taught? If the answer is yes, then success can be taught. Or at least the odds of achieving more successful life outcomes for our children can be favorably influenced.

When I was growing up in the Fifties our elementary school had some kind of arrangement in which we could deposit money in a bank account. Beginning in second grade my father gave me a dime for every A I received on my report card. The dimes were deposited in the bank. I also began to receive an allowance of a quarter a week.

What I learn with that allowance was powerful. We had a candy store a few blocks away, and if I wanted to I could ride my bike there and buy candy. My dad also brought my brother and I to the Lawson's Milk Store fairly frequently and they had a magazine rack there that was fun to peruse. Once a month the new Mad magazine came out and my quarter would be used for that. On the other hand, if I saved my quarter and waited till I had fifty cents, I could then buy a Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. And if I skipped candy altogether and somehow saved four quarters, I could buy a model Revell battleship to assemble to put on a shelf in my room.

Delayed gratification, or deferred gratification, is the ability to resist the temptation for an immediate reward and wait for a later reward. Generally, delayed gratification is associated with resisting a smaller but more immediate reward in order to receive a larger or more enduring reward later.

Is this a behavior that parents can teach? Or were those children wired for failure as a result of genetic dispositions?

In psych 101 students learn that even pigeons can be taught to do a surprising number of things by means of incentives, including playing a primitive form of ping pong, by means of stimulus-reward arrangements. On the other hand, how many times have you seen parents in a grocery story line attempting to restrain a screaming four or five year old brat who wants a candy bar, and instead of making this a teachable moment, they reward the child's ranting. "I want it now!"

What about now, as adults? Is it too late for us if we've been poorly wired as kids? There's plenty of evidence to support a belief that inner change is not only possible but in most cases desirable. Here's that article on The Marshmallow Experiment.

Once we're set in our ways change is not easy. It begins with awareness. To quote the Little Engine That Could, it begins with an affirmation: "I think I can." If we persist, we will succeed. 

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