In the 1960’s, Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel did an experiment with hundreds of three- to six-year-olds.
He put each toddler alone in a room with a marshmallow. Before leaving Mischel said, “I will be back in fifteen minutes. When I get back, if you haven’t eaten the marshmallow I’ll give you a second marshmallow.”
A few kids ate the marshmallow within seconds. About a third lasted the entire fifteen minutes. Most were somewhere in between. Mischel wanted to know if these results predicted anything about these kids’ futures.
Did they ever.
The two-thirds of kids who couldn’t last fifteen minutes had lower SAT scores in high school, less social success, less resilience, and more aggression. They even had higher body fat percentages.
Mischel was testing delayed gratification: can you give up an immediate reward for a greater reward in the future? Clearly, the implications of that question are enormous.
So, when a college athlete falls into the trap of drinking the night before a game (immediate reward = drunken social satisfaction, delayed reward = higher performance and productivity), we can interpret it though the marshmallow lens:
- The decision to drink the night before a game was, at least partly, made a long time ago. There’s empathy that comes from knowing that.
- There’s nothing in the studies to suggest that delayed gratification can’t be learned later in life.