Joachim de Posada describes a similar “Marshmallow test” with Hispanics at Columbia University. The results are similar to others.
In his latest newsletter, Jon Goldman discusses the classic psychological experiment where young children are tested in their ability to delay gratification. In the test, Stanford University professor Walter Mischel offered four year olds a choice of a marshmallow, pretzel or cookie. The kids were told that the researcher would leave the room for a while, and they could have two of their chosen items if they waited — or ring a bell, and the researcher would return, and then they could have a single item.
The results of the “delayed gratification” test were interesting on two levels; about 70 per cent could not wait longer than three minutes and many of the kids didn’t bother ringing the bell. In a variation of the test earlier in a third-world country, Mischel found that the results did not vary depending on race or “culture”, but on the socio-economic level of the participant.
However, Mischel discovered something really powerful several years later, when he evaluated the adult success of of what is known as the “marshmallow test” participants (most chose the marshmallow, perhaps showing something else about tastes and choices.)
In a follow-up study with the 650 children Mischel tested, he found that the 30 per cent who delayed gratification had higher SAT scores, did better in school and were generally more successful than the children who didn’t have the same level of self-control. Wait, read that again. Those who delayed gratification did better in life.
The suggestion here, of course, is that patience and perseverance pays and that instant and perhaps impulsive gratification is a sign of problems to come — but most of us, most of the time, will go for the quick and easy rather than long and hard approach.
Of course, consumer marketers play to this theme all the time, encouraging people to buy things they can’t afford with installment payments. Of course there are costs associated with this fast-results approach. Debt becomes a bind and trap.
Goldman suggests that the consumer folly of instant gratification expectations extends to business owners.
I see the same things with many business owners who want us to take them on as clients. They want instant gratification and if they don’t get it, they quit or they move onto the next shiny bobble. Sometimes we carry our entitlement tendencies a bit too far.
Nothing, nothing that is truly great or meaningful in life comes without investment. It’s best to develop the attitude of hating handouts and gifts. Yes, I said it, develop the approach of not wanting a free gift. It’s liberating.
Business owners we work with who are successful are able to delay their gratification and persevere through even the toughest times.
Yet there are other aspects to the story. When does perseverance or grit become folly? When are you banging your head against the wall of an impossible situation, or repeating the same mistake over and over — because you’ve always done it that way. When, as well, does it make sense to grab the opportunity when it is presented to us because it could, indeed, be fleeting.
I don’t have easy answers to these questions, but am thankful I have something of a skeptic’s mind when it comes to scientific claims, assertions and marketing stories.
So I researched Goldman’s soruces, discovering the relevant New Yorker article on the web, and this Wikipedia piece about the marshmallow experiment. I also looked for relevant videos. It seems a fair number of people have conducted partial replications of the experiment, capturing young children with marshmallows and showing their expressions (notably the other videos only show one marshmallow choice, and not the other foods on the table, which, I think, might cause different results.)
Nevertheless, if sweet treats, fancy toys and expectations of instant gratification correlate with lower chances of success, we should remind ourselves that most of us, most of the time, will take the easy road. I’m certainly “guilty” of that trait. The question, in my opinion, is whether we have the ability to discern the circumstances where patience and hard work — and genuine perseverance — are vital for success, and what defines these circumstances.