The Marshmallow Experiment

The Marshmallow Experiment

It’s almost as if the kid on the right is saying “Oh no! She did it!” with her eyes

Deferring gratification brings long term rewards

The ability to practice self-control and resist temptation of an instant reward, in exchange for a greater reward in the future is what is commonly referred to as delayed, or deferred gratification. It has been thoroughly studied and analyzed that those individuals who actively practice self-discipline and defer immediate gratification, tend to lead more fruitful, successful, and goal oriented lives. A person’s ability to avoid immediate impulse develops early on in their lives, and will typically follow someone through their adult lives.

To gain more perspective into the idea of delayed gratification, a psychology researcher by the name of Walter Mischel began a longitudinal study in the 1960’s where he observed this particular character trait in great detail, by analyzing children behavior. The name of the study became the Stanford Marshmallow experiment. The experiment took the idea of self-discipline down to its roots.

A brief recap of Stanford’s Marshmallow Experiment

The experiment was first started by the experimenter gathering up a group of young children, around the age of 4 years old. He offered all of the children an opportunity to eat a marshmallow. But, he then proceeded to tell the children that if they waited for him to run a quick 20 minute errand and return, that not only would they be able to eat the first marshmallow, but they would also receive a second one.

If the children were able to wait during the time that the researcher was gone, they would have demonstrated the ability to avoid immediate temptation, and would be an outstanding example of delayed gratification. When this portion of the study concluded, the overall statistics came out to about a third of the children being able to wait for the researcher to return with a second marshmallow.

The rest of the children either took a marshmallow right then, or waited a while and then took one, all before the researcher would come back with the additional treat.

Watch a re-enactment of the Mashmallow Test

Below, you’ll find a short video from Dr David Walsh’s re-enactment of the original Stanford Marshmallow experiment. Of course, being a present day experiment, no data is available as to the future success of children able to defer gratification.

Dr Walsh explicitly states that this experiment’s goal is not to infer nor predict anything regarding the future. However, there’s a tremendous amount of past research that confirms the original findings. Watch the video for yourself, it’s both entertaining and informative.

“We know from a ton of research that the ability to say no is a key to success. &mdash 1m33s

Fast Forward to adult age results

While these findings were intriguing, they didn’t quite prove the long term effects of someone that displays this kind of discipline. Therefore, the study continued to monitor each of the children through their high school years and ultimately adulthood.

When these children graduated high school, there was a massive difference in the children’s overall behavior and overall success. The first group of children that were able to resist taking the marshmallow initially, displayed characteristics of self-motivation, perseverance, and positivity.

They had higher test scores, more social competence, and were viewed more highly by their parents. Ultimately, the children who practiced self-discipline when it came to immediate gratification tended to also lead to more successful adult lives with higher income levels, more advanced careers, successful relationships, less anxiety, and overall more satisfying lives.

On the other hand, the children that had the predisposition to grab the marshmallow immediately during the initial experiment tended to have more negative, long-term effects. Their inability to delay gratification led them to be more sensitive and have a harder time making decisions. They also tended to be more stubborn, have less self-assurance, and had less successful adult lives.

The temptations that these individuals so easily gave into throughout their lives clouded their ability to focus on long term goals. This in turn led to a substantial difference in their overall livelihood.

It’s still true and applies to eLearning as well

This experiment tells one major thing. Habits of a person develop early on in life and also have a long standing effect on someone’s future and their success in life.

  • It is important for parents to provide a great influence on young children to help curb these effects. Rewarding children has to be a meaningful experience for them. They need to learn early on in life that if they work hard and are patient, better things will come.
  • Children that are given immediate reward, or are treated constantly with what they want, when they want it, will develop the inability to defer immediate satisfaction. These types of traits will carry on through their teenage, college, and adult years.
  • Children that never were taught self-discipline will be more likely to drop out of college or have work issues. This is not a fact of course: it’s a likelihood, a probable possibility. As Mark Twain once said: “every generalization is wrong, including this one.”

Now how does all this relate to adult learners? If you find difficult or frustrating to go at a slower pace in your online course maybe the Marshmallow Experiment’s findings may help you re-assess the situation. For sure a short article can at most shed some light on the problem but can’t “undo” whatever predisposition an adult learner may have developed.

But knowing a problem is half of the solution. Some adult learners approach online education with a slight hint of payback or return match. It’s perfectly natural to desire quick results, but expecting them does not fit well in the long term goal of achieving success.

On the other hand, the experiment teaches us that the solution is in our own hands. We decide how to approach the course, the pace, the time to be devoted to practicing. It’s a matter of focus.



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