The marshmallow experiment

A psychological experiment by Walter Mischel

Four to five year old children were invited to play a game. They were asked if they wanted to eat a marshmallow now, or wait and as a reward get a second one. Children reacted very differently. To keep it simple, there were two main groups the ” high delayers” who were able to wait a long time without eating the marshmallow and the “low delayers” who could not wait for the reward and ate the marschmallow.

The experiment was designed to measure the ability for self control, however as Mischel showed it actually measured a lot more. Longterm study of the children showed that 10 years later the high delayers could concentrate better, were able to handle their frustration more competently, were more confident and had higher IQ scores than low delayers. Twenty years later the high delayers studied more often, had more stable relationships and were less likely to take drugs than the low delayers.

Selfcontrol seems to be an important aspect of sucess: short term “pain” may be necessary to reap a long-term reward. One could say if a person has the ability for self-control they are free. There are strategies which enable more selfcontrol. If the children were told the marshmallow is not real, they could resist much better- they were able to perceive the marshmallow differently.

How we think about something can change its impact on us. This is an important realisation in psychotherapy.

Reference: Mischel, W.; Shoda, Y.; Rodriguez, M. L. (1989). Delay of gratification in children. Science, 244, 933-938.

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