Why did some of the children wait for the second marshmallow? It’s not a matter of sheer willpower.

May 17, 2009 | By | 1 Reply More

The marshmallow study run by psychologist Walter Mischel is a classic. In the late 1960s, the researcher gave hundreds of four-year-olds, one by one, the chance to either eat one marshmallow right away, or to wait for a while, whereupon they would be allowed to eat two marshmallows when the experimenter returned to the room. Most of the children could not wait for the experimenter to return, even though that happened only 15 minutes later.

Image by Kato Tomato at Flickr (Creative Commons)

Image by Kato Tomato at Flickr (Creative Commons)

Mischel’s study is the focus of an article called “Don’t,”  in the May 18, 2009 edition of the New Yorker.

The incredible thing about the children who waited is that they did dramatically better in their lives as adults than the children who couldn’t wait.  The children who couldn’t wait:

Got lower SAT scores. They struggled in stressful situations, often had trouble paying attention and found it difficult to maintain friendships. The children who could wait 15 minutes had an SAT score that was, on average, 210 points higher than that of the kids who can wait only 30 seconds.

But there’s more: “Low-delaying adults have a significantly higher body-mass index and are more likely to have had problems with drugs . . .”

I commented more about this fascinating study here.

The obvious question was whether the 30% of the children who had the ability to wait for the second marshmallow were simply exercising willpower or self-control. Mischel’s follow-up work indicates that it’s not a matter of sheer willpower.

The crucial skill was the “strategic allocation of attention.” Instead of getting obsessed with the marshmallow–the “hot stimulus”– the patient children distracted themselves by covering their eyes, pretending to play hide and seek underneath the desk, or singing songs from Sesame Street.” Their desire wasn’t defeated–it was merely forgotten. If you are thinking about the marshmallow and how delicious it is, then you’re going to eat it,”Mischel says. “The key is to avoid thinking about it in the first place.

The reason that the successful children were able to wait reminded me of work by Jonathan Haidt, who suggested (in his book, The Happiness Hypothesis) that human beings consist of two parts. The most powerful part is a huge elephant consisting of appetite cravings and emotions ridden by a “lawyer.” The appetites and emotions are simply too powerful to control by sheer willpower. One of the best tools for the “lawyer” has, then, is to distract the elephant. “Just say no” just doesn’t work very well or very long. What does seem to work, however, is to divert and distract the attention of the elephant. The same technique that was employed by the successful children, many of whom became extremely successful adults.

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Category: Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    At TED, here are some delightful scenes of 4 year old children struggling to not eat marshmallows. This six-minute video is narrated by Joachim de Posada, a speaker and motivational coach.

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