The Marshmallow Test. . . .

Or, how innate is willpower?


Back in the 1960s, Walter Mischel created a simple, but ingenious, experiment to study delayed gratification. The now famous “marshmallow test” presented a group of four and five-year-old kids from Stanford University’s nursery school with a difficult challenge. They were left alone with a treat of marshmallows. They were told they could help themselves at once, or, if they waited for up to 20 minutes get two marshmallows.

Mischel, now an eighty-year-old of Columbia University, reveals that the original purpose of the test was to learn how kids delay gratification. It was not to assess how well they did. But his own children, who had attended the nursery school, told him years later about how well socially and academically their friends from the pre-school who delayed their eating were doing.

Mischel dug into their anecdotes and found–to his surprise–a number of consistent responses. The longer the five-year-olds waited for their marshmallows, the higher they scored in standardized tests for college admissions. But these patient children had a lower body-mass index when they grew up, great psychological well-being, and were less likely to misuse drugs than those who couldn’t wait and gobbled up the marshmallow.

Several hundred studies later and as the field of delayed-gratification has processed, we now have a rich understanding of the neuroscience behind gratification.

Not an innate trait
As a result of later related research we now know that immediate gratification–willpower–is not an innate trait. Recent research reveals that “the genome can be as malleable as we once believed only environments could be.” In short, nature sets only the direction, not the destiny.

Mischel uses the upward trend in IQ scores in developed countries as an example of gratification management. Indeed, he overcame his own smoking addiction, at least in part, by focusing on the long-term consequences and reminding himself of the cancer risks.

Mischel now shows that a preference for delayed gratification can be a matter of trust. Children who grew up with absent parents, for example, may be less likely to believe they’ll get a reward. Children with absent fathers were prone to opting for immediate rewards.

But the ability to postpone rewards, to delay gratification and pursue goals and long-term rewards as well as to hold to positive expectations helps explain why waiting for marshmallows at the age of five has such a strong relationship to life outcomes in adulthood.

So, willpower and delayed gratification are not innate. Like expertise in many fields, they are learned habits and competencies.

**Timekeeper Reading List, The Economist, October 11, 2014.
**Michael Mischel, The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control

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