Back in the 1960s, Walter Mischel, a psychology professor at Stanford, conducted an experiment called the "marshmallow test" on a group of four-year-olds. A child was given a marshmallow and told he could either ring a bell to summon the researcher and get to eat the marshmallow right away or wait a few minutes until the researcher returned, at which time the child would be given two marshmallows. It's a simple test of self control, but only about a third of kids that age will wait for the second marshmallow. What's more interesting, though, is that success on that test correlates pretty well with success later in life. The children who can't wait grow up to have lower S.A.T. scores, higher body mass indexes, problems with drugs and trouble paying attention.
“What’s interesting about four-year-olds is that they’re just figuring out the rules of thinking,” Mischel says. “The kids who couldn’t delay would often have the rules backwards. They would think that the best way to resist the marshmallow is to stare right at it, to keep a close eye on the goal. But that’s a terrible idea. If you do that, you’re going to ring the bell before I leave the room.”
According to Mischel, this view of will power also helps explain why the marshmallow task is such a powerfully predictive test. “If you can deal with hot emotions, then you can study for the S.A.T. instead of watching television,” Mischel says. “And you can save more money for retirement. It’s not just about marshmallows.”
In his TED Talk (embedded below), motivational speaker Joachim de Posada uses the marshmallow test to urge people to have better self control and, perhaps, make us less likely as a society to repeat the financial troubles of the recent past. (He also has funny video of children taking the test.)
But can we learn to not eat the marshmallow? Mischel is still trying to figure that one out (the New Yorker's profile of him goes into more detail). He knows that he can teach kids to master the marshmallow test itself:
When he and his colleagues taught children a simple set of mental tricks—such as pretending that the candy is only a picture, surrounded by an imaginary frame—he dramatically improved their self-control. The kids who hadn’t been able to wait sixty seconds could now wait fifteen minutes. “All I’ve done is given them some tips from their mental user manual,” Mischel says. “Once you realize that will power is just a matter of learning how to control your attention and thoughts, you can really begin to increase it.”
But whether that learning translates into success as an adult is not yet known. Mischel is planning a large-scale study of kids in New York, Philadelphia and Seattle to see if self control can be taught. And he and his colleagues have begun working with the KIPP program of schools where self control is one of the fundamental "character strengths" to be taught. (The KIPP academy in Philadelphia even gives kids a shirt with the phrase "Don't Eat the Marshmallow.") The final answer, though, won't come for years. However, as someone who would not have eaten the marshmallow at age four (or so my mom says), I can say that having will power does pay off in the end.