What’s the link between marshmallows, money and the munchies? Will power and self-control, says Dr Karl.

Children who waited 15 minutes before eating their marshmallows were more likely to do well at school and become successful (Source: ncognet0/iStockphoto)

What’s the link between marshmallows, money and the munchies? Will power and self-control!

Back in 1968, Walter Mischel from Stanford University in California came up with the now-famous ‘marshmallow test’. It tested self-control in some 600 children aged between four and six.

The kids were each individually offered a treat (for example, a marshmallow). If they wanted, they could eat the marshmallow immediately. But if they waited 15 minutes and didn’t eat the single marshmallow, they would then be rewarded with two marshmallows.

A small minority didn’t even think about waiting and immediately ate their marshmallow.

Most of the kids tried to hold off but most failed. Only about one third were able to wait it out successfully for the full 15 minutes and be rewarded with their two marshmallows.

It was very hard for the kids. Some covered their eyes or turned around so that they couldn’t see the tempting marshmallow, others kicked a desk or stamped their feet on the floor or even pulled their hair to divert themselves from thinking about it. Other stared into the mirror, or began talking to themselves.

The more they avoided looking at the marshmallow, the more successful they were at waiting the full 15 minutes. Rather than stoically ‘willing’ themselves to stare down temptation, they simply engaged in other activities to avoid looking at the marshmallow. Some sang songs, while others hid theirs heads in their arms, or prayed to the ceiling.

In one dramatically effective self-distraction technique, after obviously experiencing much agitation, a little girl rested her head, sat limply, relaxed herself, and proceeded to fall sound asleep.

Mind you, once they had managed to successfully distract themselves for the full 15 minutes, they didn’t wait and immediately rewarded themselves by eating both marshmallows.

Originally, Dr Mishcel had no intention of doing any follow up. But his three daughters went to the same schools as the four to six-year-old kids in his study. As part of idle dinner conversation, he would ask his daughters about these kids.

As the years rolled by, he thought he could see a link between their ability to wait for the second marshmallow, and how well they did in school. So he then followed up the kids as they grew up (1981, 1990 and 2011). The results were amazing.

In the USA, the SAT Exams are standardised tests for admission to university, with a maximum possible score of 2,400. The students who could wait 15 minutes had an SAT score that was 210 points higher than that of the child who could wait only 30 seconds. These kids also ended up being more successful and popular at school and at work, and more respected by their co-workers.

The kids who couldn’t wait 15 minutes were more likely to have behavioural problems, both at home and in school. They were less likely to have done well at school, less able to deal with stress, but more likely to get fatter and to have more personal problems. They were also more likely to have been arrested, and to have problems with drugs.

We used to think of self-control or willpower as being some kind of ‘moral attribute’, with ‘stronger’ people having more while others had less. But now we think of it as being more like a muscle. It can be overworked and tire out, it can get stronger with exercise, and it can be recharged after a rest and some sustenance.

Studies have been done in which the subjects had to perform a series of willpower/self-control tasks. As expected, they gradually got worse as they moved from one set of tasks to the next. But if they drank regular lemonade (i.e. sweetened with sugar) they performed better than people who drank diet lemonade (i.e. containing no sugar).

Getting back to Dr Mischel, he has some simple advice on teaching self-control: “We should give marshmallows to every kindergartner. We should say: ‘You see this marshmallow? You don’t have to eat it. You can wait. Here’s how’.”

And ain’t that sweet.

Tags: psychology

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Published 17 July 2012

2012 Karl S. Kruszelnicki Pty Ltd

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19 Jul 2012 4:31:36pm

What about cause and effect?

For example, is the ability to exercise self-control not a determinant of later success, but merely a reflection of some other individual characteristic that itself determines success?

I’m thinking that these characteristics might include self-awareness and intellectual capacity?

I’m also thinking that teaching a child techniques for resisting marshmallows might not have any effect on some of the characteristics that really determine success.

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14 Aug 2012 3:20:25pm

I agree.

Is willpower the cause, the effect or related to another attribute? In fact there are so many other variables (societal, family structure, maturity, intellect, etc. etc.), I can’t connect Dr Karl’s conclusion without more explanation.

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