What the marshmallow experiment teaches us
written by Philip Stefanov | JUNE 1, 2021
Back in the 1960s, professor Walter Mischel and his colleagues from Stanford University began a series of tests. They performed these psychological experiments on 92 children between the ages of three and five. In their now-famous marshmallow experiment, the researchers revealed that one quality is essential for predicting later success in life.
Each child was placed in a private room, and a marshmallow was placed on the table in front of them. The researchers told each child that they would leave the room and if they didn’t eat the marshmallow while the researchers were away, they would be rewarded another one.
The researchers left the room for fifteen minutes. During that time, some of the children jumped immediately and ate the marshmallow; others managed to restrain themselves for a bit but eventually gave in to the temptation. A few of them managed to control themselves for the full fifteen minutes.
As the years passed and these kids grew up, researchers conducted follow-up studies, measuring each child’s progress in different areas. The researchers found that the kids who were able to delay gratification during the initial tests now did better at school, had better social skills, responded better to stress, and generally did better in other areas of their lives. Here are the follow-up studies published in 1988, 1989, and 1990.
I do want to clear one thing up:
I understand that adherence, habit formation, and reaching success in fitness, health, and life are much more complicated. A few studies can’t reveal everything. But they give us valuable insight into the power of delayed gratification and I’m sure you’ve experienced it for yourself. We build small daily successes on delayed gratification:
- Hitting a workout before getting back home for dinner after a long workday
- Stretching for ten minutes before going to bed
- Skipping junk food when you’re out in favor of a nutritious meal at home
Over time, these small, seemingly insignificant acts of delayed gratification snowball into huge, dramatic improvements.
One workout doesn’t change much. But that could be ten extra pounds of muscle over a year. Stretching once won’t do much for you, but consistency can be the difference between great flexibility and stagnation. One healthy meal won’t change much, but again, stretch that over a year, and you could be much healthier and leaner.
If there is one quality that greatly determines our success in work, finances, health, and fitness, it is delayed gratification. Each day presents us with two choices: do what’s easy and pleasurable, or do what’s challenging but good for us in the long run.
The collection of choices you make will determine your life’s trajectory.
Thank you for reading! Until next week,
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