Picture it: A preschooler is alone in a room with a delectable snack – a marshmallow or a cookie — sitting right in front of her. She is told that if she can just wait 15 minutes, she can have TWO treats.
Can she resist the temptation and be rewarded? Or will she succumb to instant gratification and wolf down her sweet treat?
A simple premise and simple rules, but this experiment yielded some very complex and enlightening results.
Stanford psychologist Dr. Walter Mischel dreamed up this experiment in testing self-control in the early 1960s and was inspired in part by his own three preschool-aged daughters. How, he wondered, had they grown from utterly impulsive creatures and developed some self-control?
“I was watching this miracle that occurs when our kids … really begin spontaneously to show dramatic changes in their ability to control their impulses,” said Mischel, adding, “I realized that I didn’t have a clue about what was going on in my children’s heads that allowed these changes to occur and that’s what I wanted to understand.”
He was fascinated about what had led them to the point of actually being able to wait for gratification.
More than 600 children took part in the experiment, some of whom were his daughter’s classmates, at the Bing preschool at Stanford university.
To Eat or Not To Eat
“We were interested in creating an intense conflict for the child,” said Mischel. “That conflict was crucial, because without it, you don’t have a situation for testing self-control.”
Imagine the 4-year old alone in a room staring at a cookie or marshmallow or other sweet. It was always left right there in front of them; the kids were told all they would have to do was ring a bell to call back the experimenter and they could put themselves out of their misery and eat the cookie – but they wouldn’t get a second treat.
So what was different about the kids who were able to exhibit self-control and be rewarded, and where are these kids now, some five decades later?
All Grown Up
Mischel and his researchers tracked the children in the original experiment for about five decades. They noted how the trait of exercising self-control at such a young age was related to a number of different outcomes as the kids grew up. In general, the children who couldn’t resist temptation often had a higher BMI, lower testing scores, such as on the SAT, and a slightly increased risk of substance abuse later on.
In a follow-up experiment with about 60 people from the original preschool group, additional tests were performed. In this case, the subjects looked at images with either fearful (no treat) or happy (treat) facial expressions and were instructed to press a button when they saw one but not the other.
Astonishingly, the same people who had self-control issues at 4 couldn’t delay gratification at over 40!
Destiny Is Not Determined by an Eaten Cookie
So how were some kids able to delay gratification? Mischel noticed that the 4-year-olds who successfully delayed gratification and were rewarded with two treats found ways — often creative – to distract themselves from the lure of instant gratification.
“I’m going to push this stuff as far away from myself as I can. I’m going to distance myself. I’m going to turn around in my chair and look the other way so that I don’t see the stuff. I’m going to distract myself strategically. I’m going to sing little songs,” explained Mischel.
The key, Mischel, says, was their creative ability to “mentally cool the hot aspects of your environment.” So, they were able to tune out the things pulling them away from their goal, for example, reframing the treat (picturing a marshmallow as a cloud) or putting the cookie at a distance (imagining it was just a picture).
Make Good Choices
So does this mean that if you’re an instant-gratifying 4-year-old you’re doomed? No! Mischel says that while some people are wired more toward self-control and “cooling,” both kids and adults can learn “mental distancing techniques” to strengthen their self-control.
Mischel reveals that the same ability that helps us delay gratification can also help us make believes that the skills that enable us to delay gratification are the same skills that allow us to make other good choices, despite temptation.
“We’ve found a way to really improve human choice and freedom . . . we are no longer victims of our desires,” Mischel says.