What is your marshmallow?

Summary: In an experiment suggesting a connection between success with the ability to delay gratification, children who refrained from eating a marshmallow to obtain another marshmallow were shown to be “successful” later in life.

More details of the experiment: Children were left alone in a room with a marshmallow. If they did not eat the marshmallow for 15 minutes, they would receive a second one.  The investigator likened this test of will to telling an adult he or she would have to wait two hours for a cup of coffee. Two out of three of the kids ate the treat. One out of three did not. That 33% who resisted were deemed “successful” later in life. The standards by which their “success” was judged were not discussed, but the speaker mentions examining the subjects’ grades in school and whether or not they went on to college.

Questions: Success is relative, subjective and one of those ideas that seems to be a behavior-control tool arising from human society’s need to create reliable, consistent workers. Trying to define success is like trying to define happiness or freedom. But I suppose if you’re transparent about your definition, and someone agrees with it, then the information would be helpful. Also, how do you account for the myriad factors that could have influenced the children’s behavior as they aged from their marshmallow moment to the follow-up analysis of their accomplishments or lack thereof?

More on this study? A quick search for “delayed gratification” brought up a New Yorker article, “Don’t! The secret of self-control”, which I believe discusses the same experiment, and provides more details of how success is defined. It mentions SAT scores, quality of relationships and reactions to stressful situations.

Funny: The girl going into paroxysms around the 3:58 point in the video. She looks like a gasoline huffer given a fresh can of liquid escape. Better yet, we learn that she ate only the inside of the marshmallow. Such subterfuge!  Her diabolical attempt to consume the irrestible treat while tricking the experimenter into releasing a reward is savagely cute. Then again, it’s scary because it’s so … so human. It’s not a stretch to imagine adults using the same style of trickery but effecting far more dire consequences than laughter.

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