Delayed gratification means giving up pleasure now to get a greater reward in the future. We cut down on the junk food today, so we look good at the beach next summer. We save money now, so we can relax in retirement. We all delay gratification to some degree, and it starts at a young age.
In the 1960s, Stanford professor Walter Mischel tested children’s ability to delay gratification. In his experiment, a researcher offered up a simple choice to each young child. The child could have one marshmallow now or two marshmallows if the child could hold out for 15 minutes. The researcher left the child alone in the room with one marshmallow on a tray. The child was filmed with a secret video camera. Most of the children couldn’t wait and soon ate the marshmallow.
However, about 30% were able to delay gratification and get the second marshmallow. Interestingly, the children were tested for the next 30 years, and the ones who could wait for the second marshmallow were more successful later in life! They got higher test scores in school, they had fewer problems with drugs, and they were much more likely to hit the books in college. They also had lower body fat and made more money as adults. They simply exceeded their peers in many facets of life.
Delayed gratification is a type of self-control. The children in this experiment used a variety of techniques to delay gratification and control themselves. This experiment has been replicated many times, and the results can be seen in videos online. Some of the kids turn around or cover their eyes so they can’t see the marshmallow. Some kick the desk, pull their hair, or sing songs to distract themselves. Others stroke the marshmallow as if it were a doll. These are all techniques to control their focus. They are childish techniques, but they do the trick.
For many people, the takeaway from this experiment is that some kids are born with the successful trait of delayed gratification, and others aren’t. Our future success is set in stone. Walter Mischel disagreed. He said, “That iconic story is upside-down wrong — that your future is in a marshmallow — because it isn’t.” He believed that we are not bound by our past. We can learn to reframe situations to change the way we behave. He talks about how he was able to take a child who failed the test and quickly teach her techniques to successfully delay gratification. Mischel believes the point of the marshmallow experiment is not about how fixed we are, but about our immense potential for change.