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Three twists of a marshmallow

Watch the sunrise at least once a year, put a lot of marshmallows in your hot chocolate, lie on your back and look at the stars, never buy a coffee table you can't put your feet on, never pass up a chance to jump on a trampoline, don't overlook life's small joys while searching for the big ones

H Jackson Brown, Jr


Granola didn't sell very well when it was good for you. Now it has caramel, chocolate, marshmallow, saturated fat and sweeteners with a small amount of oats and grains. Sales picked up.

George Carlin


It’s the me generation. Want want want. More more more. Now now now.


It’s not necessarily the case that all humans are selfish, although obviously some are. It’s more that having things in the here and now is a lot better than waiting patiently or even endlessly for something that may or may not happen. That’s where the zone of uncertainty lies—and many of us would like more certainty in a turbulent world.


The horn of the dilemma is this: if you wait, maybe you won’t ever get what you want. And even if you do, waiting means you don’t get the benefit of whatever it is that you desire fast enough.


So it’s always better to satisfy your immediate needs, wants and likes and get what you’re after immediately rather than later. Right?


Not necessarily. In fact there are times where we should actively work to put aside our cravings or postpone satisfying our desires, to hope for something better to happen down the track. There’s a reason that patience is traditionally considered a virtue: good things really do come to those who wait, don’t they—so the alternative argument goes.

They might sometimes, but even if they do, that’s not how contemporary society has been set up. A surprising number of features of modern life rely on instant gratification and spontaneous behavior in support of getting urges satisfied, STAT.


Don’t bother with dieting: just have a nip and a tuck, or have a surgeon fit a lap-band on the top of your stomach, and hey-presto—you’re a new slim version of yourself. No willpower required.


Save up for that new car? Nah, why? Just extend your credit limit and go and buy it this afternoon.


Eat the hot dog or the donuts at the game? Why choose? Have both.


Gambling, which is ubiquitous these days, means you throw the dice, buy a lottery ticket or put money on a horse and when it comes in you collect the winnings. Extra cash, right there and then. All of this, in very short order.


In between jobs? Go and have a long holiday in the Caribbean rather than circulating your resume and working your way tediously through a “best employers” list.


It’s too easy. After all that recessionary belt-tightening, there’s mountains of credit, calories everywhere you look, and advertising everywhere that seduces us into never needing to put tomorrow off.


The long arc of today’s society bends towards now, not later. Everywhere.

Amongst the most famous studies in psychology was a series conducted through the 1960s and the 1970s at Stanford University, led by psychologist Walter Mischel and his colleagues. These experiments did not need much in the way of resources or personnel. The researchers enrolled preschool children who were ushered into a room (the “Surprise Room”) with a one-way observation mirror. The experimenters only needed two pieces of equipment: marshmallows (or other treat) and a bell.


Mischel presented his four year olds with a marshmallow and told them that they had two choices: they could wait a quarter of an hour, after which the experimenter would return and give them an additional marshmallow; alternatively, they could eat the single marshmallow immediately. The elegant simplicity of this study was a crystal clear choice: take a small reward now or earn a bigger reward later.


If you don’t know this experiment, what would you predict? Take a minute to think this through.


A proportion of children—around two-thirds—gave in and ate that gooey, delicious marshmallow within 15 minutes. The other third resisted temptation and delayed gratification, earning that seductive second marshmallow. For them, self-control won. They did a good job, considering they were only four.

Here’s the first of three twists on the marshmallow. Mischel and his colleagues followed up some of these children into their teens. Those who delayed gratification as four year olds were much better off than those who didn’t down the track. Years later, children who got through the 15 minutes had higher SAT scores, and were more socially competent. They were less obese, more self-assured and had higher levels of self-worth than those who succumbed. The children who delayed gratification were also rated by their parents as being more mature, better able to cope with stress, more competent at planning ahead, and more rational. Fewer in this delayed group had been diagnosed with psychological disorders or hyperactivity.


And here’s the second twist in the marshmallow. Mischel, along with B.J. Casey, Professor of Developmental Psychobiology at Cornell University, continued to follow up the marshmallow kids into adulthood. (Hardly anyone does this level of dogged longitudinal research, by the way. In fact, by waiting so patiently to do this follow-up study, it could be said that the research team themselves were enacting the positive attributes uncovered by their own research. Of course, they didn’t just sit around waiting for years—they were doing other research. But their persistence is admirable).

It turns out that delayed gratification wasn’t just a boon to teenagers. As adults, those in the temptation-resisting group were less likely to have problems of addiction, were more likely to stay married than get divorced, and were less likely to be overweight. In fact, adult weight gain can be anticipated with a degree of precision that might seem unnerving: every minute of delayed gratification amongst preschoolers translated to a 0.2% reduction in body mass index 30 years later.


Attributing adult success to how you reacted to a marshmallow at age four may seem weird, but it’s a clear result from some very good science. Resisting temptation really is good for you.


And the underlying explanation for all of this? It’s all about self-control and the capacity to balance short-term payoffs against higher levels of reward later. The generalizable point is that a capacity to delay gratification in the early years has multiple downstream benefits throughout the life course.

But there’s even more. It’s hard enough to get inside the minds of adults, let alone preschoolers. But more recent research by Casey and his colleagues, who examined 59 of the original participants 40 years later, gives us the third twist on that marshmallow.


In middle-age, almost their mid-40s, these subjects were given another temptation-inducing task. This time the researchers needed a substitute for marshmallows, because they aren’t quite as seductive to 44 year-olds.


In this experiment, the subjects were asked to suppress their response to pictures of happy faces, but not to suppress their responses to neutral or fearful faces. The delayed gratification group were better than the group who succumbed at exercising control over their impulses in response to the happy faces.


In plain terms, someone who was unable to resist eating a marshmallow immediately at age four had greater difficulty suppressing their response to a happy face at age 44. This suggested to the researchers that the ability to delay gratification is a trait that remains constant over a person’s lifespan.


The research team then used neuroimaging techniques to assess the brain activity of a subsample of 26 of the 59 participants. What was happening inside our subjects’ heads, they asked?


They compared the two groups—the delayed-gratification and want-now people—and examined which parts of their brains lit up when they did a particular task. The delayed group’s right prefrontal cortex (technically, the part called the “right inferior frontal gyrus”) fired up, whereas in the succumbed group, their ventral striatum was activated. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the frontal gyrus is associated with risk aversion. The ventral striatum has been linked to addiction.

It’s not just in brain imaging that we can find an explanation for these distinctions. People use well known strategies to delay gratification.


In the real world outside the psychology lab, if you attend to the attractive features of something—the yummy smell and look of food before you taste it, the erotic feeling before you have sex, the allure of the shiny new car or boat, or the seductive attraction of immediate cash—you’ll be much more likely to cave in. But cooling down strategies, as they are called, can help in resisting temptation. Avoiding contact with the seductive thing, focusing on other things, or even reimagining that object of desire, can help an individual withstand its siren song.


So for a kid, imagining it’s not a marshmallow in front of them but a ball of cotton wool might work to reduce its appeal. Or covering their eyes, hiding from the marshmallow under the desk, humming a tune or reciting a nursery rhyme to create a diversion instead of gazing longingly at the marshmallow can all help reduce the agony of the waiting period.


For adults, saying to yourself “it’s just another meal, and it’s too many calories anyway”, or “more sex—so what? I can live without it right now”, or “my current car or boat is just fine; it gets me around no problem”, or even “who needs more cash anyway? I have enough for my needs and it’ll just complicate things,” are all legitimate and natural cooling-off strategies that people in real life use.


Amongst life’s skills, being able to delay getting what you want for a spell is adaptive. The capacity to defer rewards for a spell, and to receive them later, is associated with prosocial skills such as sharing and healthy interactions with others.


It’s a complex picture, of course, but it does seem that those of us who are better at putting things off for a little while generally experience more satisfying social circumstances. And it seems that women are more likely to display this trait than men—multiple studies have shown that about 10% more females have the capacity to delay gratification than males.

An attentive reader might be worried around now. Do these marshmallow ‘twists’ mean that this particular aspect of your personality is written in the stars? Does a childhood inability to resist temptation mean that you’re destined to always act on impulse, regardless of the better things that may lie ahead if you can just hold out against that eminently desirable (but possibly unnecessary) cookie, lover, or car? Is it the case that you’re genetically predisposed to being someone who is able to delay gratification on the one hand, or to readily succumb to temptation on the other? If you are hard-wired at age four with the capacity to wait, is your life going to be significantly better than that of your friend who can’t? Surely not?


The answer is … well, yeah, the science points that way, but I want to offer more encouragement. Entrenched behaviors—even rusted-on mental states—are modifiable. We should take a lead on the answer to these worrying questions from the person who did most of the studies, and has published a marvelous book (The Marshmallow Test, 2014) on his accumulated experiences over decades. Walter Mischel doesn’t think his marshmallow experiments mean that our lives are prescribed for us and that our behaviors are pre-ordained. Research running alongside the marshmallow experiments tells us that this is oh-so not the case. We are active agents with choices every step of the life-course. For Mischel:


“… the discovery of the plasticity of the brain tells us that human nature is more flexible and open to change than has long been assumed. We do not come into the world with a bundle of fixed, stable traits that determine who we become. We develop in continuous interactions with our social and biological environments. These interactions shape the … life stories we construct.”


There are persuasive examples of this everywhere. Think of all the US Presidents who overcame humble beginnings, like Barack Obama or Gerald Ford. Reflect on others from different walks of life who transcended various forms of hardship, like Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, Stephen Hawking, Oprah Winfrey, Mark Wahlberg, Charlize Theron, and Helen Keller. It’s hard to beat these examples, and Mischel’s words, for an empowering endorsement of people’s capacities to succeed regardless of handicap, predilections or idiosyncrasies.

You may be a member of the me generation, but you don’t have to be controlled by this particular cultural phenomenon. Practice a little delayed gratification. Even if you are amongst the two-thirds who would consume the marshmallow rather than wait a while, you can, as an adult, actively try putting things off occasionally. Test your self-control: do this a little more than you do now, and you might just re-wire your brain.


And over the long haul—you could find you’re more successful.


Further reading:

Casey, BJ, Somerville, Leah H, Gotlib H, Ian, Ayduk, Ozlem, Franklin, Nicholas T, Askren, Mary K, Jonides, John, Mischel, Walter, Shoda, Yuichi (2011). Behavioral and neural correlates of delay of gratification 40 years later. PNAS 108 (36): 14998-15003.


Mischel, Walter (2014). The Marshmallow Test. London: Transworld Publishers.


Shoda, Yuichi, Mischel, Walter, Peake, Philip K (1990). Predicting adolescent cognitive and self-regulatory competencies from preschool delay of gratification: identifying diagnostic conditions. Developmental Psychology 26 (6) :978-986.


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