The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment was a momentous study on the significance of the ability to delay gratification.* A preschool child would be seated at a table in front of a marshmallow, and was given the choice to eat the marshmallow immediately or to receive a second one if he or she could resist eating it for fifteen minutes.
A minority ate the marshmallow immediately while 30% were able to control their impulses long enough to get the second marshmallow. Most tried to resist temptation but soon gave up.
Many years later, the original researcher, Dr. Mischel, discovered that the children who were able to delay gratification became significantly more competent, emotionally balanced, and dependable than those who could not resist instant gratification. They also scored 250 points higher on the SATs, worked well under pressure and in groups, were more confident, and reported being happier in their lives.
Brain imaging showed key differences between the two groups in two areas: the prefrontal cortex (more active in high delayers) and the ventral striatum (more active in the more impulsive children, an area also linked to addictions.)
Mischel’s studies suggest that the ability to wait for a reward involves the “strategic allocation of attention”, that is, the ability to purposely focus one’s attention away from the desirable object. The successful preschoolers, for instance, would distract themselves by moving around, pretending the marshmallow was a stuffed animal, covering their eyes, tapping their fingers, or looking at anything other than the marshmallow.
They also had the ability to consider and hold in their minds the future outcome rather than being swept away by the present temptation. Either through a genetic predisposition or by having been raised in an environment where they learned to wait for what they wanted, they had the capacity to act on the basis of long-term satisfaction rather than instantaneous pleasure.
Ideally, we can learn to enjoy much of the present while working toward a desirable future. In fact, once we’re able to consider both the present and the future simultaneously, then instant gratification loses some of its allure when we know that it could harm our future.
The distinction between the past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.
by Alison Poulsen, PhD
* The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment was conducted in 1972 by psychologist Walter Mischel.