A typical sunny Saturday afternoon. You’re just sitting down at your desk to get started on that pile of weekend homework when you get a call from your best friend.
“Everyone is going over to swim at Josh’s house right now,” she says excitedly. “We need to go! Get your swimsuit on and meet me outside in ten minutes!”
You glance down at your blank math worksheet and the two books you have to read by next Wednesday. You imagine all of your friends lounging in Josh’s yard, eating barbecue and splashing in the deep end. Dilemma. If you throw on your bathing suit and head over to Josh’s, you’ll have a great Saturday. If you stay in and work, you might not have the best Saturday, but your good grades at the end of the year will be your well-deserved reward. So, do you swim or study?
Most of us know what we should do—skip out on the pool party and catch up on work. However, when the promise of fun in the sun is dangling over our heads, it can be really difficult to stay motivated and hit the books.
This phenomenon is known as “delayed gratification.” Delayed gratification means that instead of choosing the option that seems the most fun right this minute, we hold out for something that will be more fun or give us more enjoyment in the future. In this example, we are passing up an immediate fun reward (swimming with friends), and putting in work to achieve a future reward (excellent grades). We might miss out on Amanda’s amazing cannonball splash that Saturday at the pool, but we will be much happier with our grades in the long run.
Psychology researchers like Dr. Walter Mischel study delayed gratification using a dangerous combination—marshmallows and hungry nursery school kids. Little boys and girls enter an empty room and someone places one big marshmallow in front of them on a plate. They lick their lips and get ready to feast on the sticky marshmallow. But, there’s a catch. The kids are told that they have two choices: they can eat the one marshmallow in front of them right now, or they can wait fifteen minutes and they will receive a second marshmallow!
Sounds simple, right? Go for two! But don’t forget, these are young kids who looooove marshmallows. And fifteen minutes can feel like three hours to a four-year old! Some kids eat the marshmallow right away. Some kids close their eyes, kick their legs, and pick at the corners of their sticky treat. They’ll do anything to avoid eating that marshmallow. If they make it the full fifteen minutes, they get rewarded with a second fluffy white marshmallow.
Now, this experiment wasn’t just a test to tease. These researchers wanted to see if the choices that the nursery school kids made when they were very young—to eat the marshmallow or not to eat—would influence their later success as adults. But why would eating (or not eating) a marshmallow have anything to do with success?
The kids who waited that fifteen minutes to get the extra marshmallow were showing more self-control and a stronger ability to regulate, or manage, their desires. What’s interesting is that the researchers found that many years later, nursery school kids who showed the ability to wait for the second marshmallow had higher SATs scores, higher educational achievement, better ability to cope with stressful situations, higher self-esteem and less drug use as teens and adults. Overall, their lives were way better! The ability to wait for rewards rather than indulging immediately seems to predict future success.
Does this mean that all of the four and five year old marshmallow gobblers who just couldn’t wait fifteen minutes will never be successful? Of course not! Research studies like the marshmallow test only point out that delayed gratification and future success are linked, but the test can’t predict any individual kid’s future.
But the results make sense. Oftentimes, some of the best rewards take hard work and a lot of patience. Remember “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”? While each of the other children invited to Willy Wonka’s magical candy factory are unable to wait before diving into the candy, Charlie waits patiently until the end of the tour and receives the best prize of all-the entire chocolate factory!
We can be in control of the choices we make. It can be really hard to wait for something that we can’t immediately see. Whether it’s saving up allowance for a big purchase rather than spending all of your money right away, or practicing an instrument after school instead of heading to the mall, delayed gratification isn’t always easy. Picture your goals in your mind. Imagine your future successful outcome. Celebrate little steps along the path to your final goal, like reaching the twenty dollar mark in your piggy bank or mastering a piece of music on your violin. Hang up pictures or little reminders of what you are working toward. Delayed gratification is something we can teach ourselves, and with practice, it becomes easier and easier to control the “now” and wait for the “later.”
So next time you sit down to the task at hand, and the sun is calling from beneath your window shades, remember those little kids and their marshmallows. It seems that the marshmallow test proves what parents and grandparents have been telling us all along: patience is a virtue. Besides, you can always hit the pool later, after you have finished some of that homework. We’ll save you some barbecue.