Finding The Things Worth Waiting For: What The 'Marshmallow Psychology Test' Can Teach Us

by Kenzie Aryn

Walter Mischel's “marshmallow test,” performed with toddlers, has become one of the best-known studies in psychology. A toddler is given the choice to have one marshmallow now or wait and have two later; the ability to “delay gratification,” i.e., hold out for the second marshmallow, is predictive of outcomes in later life ranging from social and cognitive abilities, to SAT scores, to the ability to cope maturely.

These cubes of gelatin have changed the way educators and psychologists think about success — in addition to one's intelligence, the level of self-control, patience and ability to tame impulses also matters.

I often wonder if as a child I would have passed this marshmallow test; in a sense, members of Generation-Y encounter versions of the marshmallow test daily. Are you the type of person who waits for the second marshmallow? Check out the following scenarios:

Good Things Happen to Those Who Wait

I put in time and effort at a job, which is not always ideal, but will ultimately help me reach my end goal. I need to learn a new software program for work. I work through any issues/problems myself and only ask for help after I've exhausted all personal resources. I book vacations after carefully researching options, prices, weather, and travel logistics. I deposit my paycheck in the bank so I am able to fund something I may need down the road. I say “I love you” after months in a committed relationship when I'm confident my feelings are reciprocated. I'm renting a modest apartment now in order to save for my dream apartment/house down the road. I resist the urge to order that third glass of wine knowing that 7 am comes early. I decide to become a pet owner after carefully weighing the pros and cons. I consider the amount of time I'd be able to devote to the pet, and assess my available resources to pay for the animal's care. I decide to have a pet because I cannot resist that “pick me face” in the window; or after seeing a rescue commercial, I know I have to save a life. Plus, I'm lonely and winters are made for cuddling.

Carpe Diem (Seize the Day)

I move from one job to another to remain satisfied in the moment. I need to learn a new software program for work. I immediately ask my co-worker for help. Why should I spend the time working through any issues/problems when someone else already has? I book the “act now” trips that pop up on my web browser. Hey, you've got to act on a deal — it's too good to pass up. I cash my paycheck and place it on the bar to fund a fun night out with my friends. I say “I love you” because I'm caught up in the moment. I'm spending more to have my dream apartment/house now. Who knows where I'll be living in a year anyway? I only live once, why not order one more glass of wine? 7 am is a whole day away. I decide to have a pet because I cannot resist that “pick me face” in the window; or after seeing a rescue commercial, I know I have to save a life. Plus, I'm lonely and winters are made for cuddling.

Do you relate to the scenarios in one column more than another? I am divided; I fail the late night Seamless-Food-Delivery test weekly. I know that the next morning, I will feel regret after a late-night fried food binge, yet it is difficult to resist the temptation to open and hit “reorder.” I am also guilty of adopting a rescue puppy on the spot.

However, I am notorious for color-coded pro/con lists, researching every restaurant in any given area prior to making a final selection, and have never said “I love you” on a whim.

While sayings like “live in the moment” and “whatever you want to do, do it” compete with “discipline is just choosing between what you want now and what you want most,” I propose we're not examining the issue directly.

Now versus later:

Success results from more than knowing when to delay and when to act. Whether or not one should or should not delay gratification can be ambiguous. Effective strategies will differ depending both on the individual and the demands/circumstances of the particular situation (Sethi et al., 2000). Lionel Trilling, a distinguished humanist concisely captures the risks of having too much self-control: “The will is not everything… panic and emptiness make their onset when the will is tired from its own excess” (Trilling, 1943, p.139).

An excess of willpower can be as self-defeating as an absence. The goal is to develop the competency to both sustain delayed gratification and to seize the moment when either choice feels appropriate. The challenge is in knowing which choice is advantageous to a particular situationIn sum, there are times to immediately eat one marshmallow and times to wait for two marshmallows; just be certain you know the reason behind your decision and are comfortable with the immediate and long-term implications.

These few words from Walter Mischel may change how you think about marshmallows, and even decisions in general: “The marshmallow task forces kids to find a way to make the situation work for them. They want the second marshmallow, but how can they get it? We can't control the world, but we can control how we think about it.” (The Secret of Self-Control: The New Yorker, 2009).

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