Raw Concepts: Future Orientation, or Marshmallow Eating

There was a famous study conducted back in the day called the Marshmallow Experiment, conducted by Walter Mischel. It’s considered one of the most revealing studies ever due to it’s implications about the profound effects our ability to defer gratification has on our success.

Philip Zimbardo discusses the Marshmallow Experiment here:

In the study, individual marshmallows were placed in front of hungry 4-year old children. The children were told that they could eat the marshmallow in front of them immediately, but if they were to last 15 minutes without giving into temptation, they would be allowed to eat two marshmallows. (And to anyone who knows 4-year olds, 15 minutes is the equivalent of an eternity.) Some kids ate their marshmallows right away, while others waited the 15 minutes and got two marshmallows as a reward for their patience. About 1/3 of the subjects were able to defer gratification. This was considered proof that age and maturity play a major role in the ability to defer gratification.

Here’s where it gets interesting. When follow-up studies were done years later, they discovered the impatient children exhibited the following traits according to their parents and teachers:

  • more likely to be indecisive
  • bratty and immature
  • procrastinators
  • more likely to bully, either emotionally or physically
  • stubborn
  • poor willpower and impulse control, still unable to delay gratification
  • prone to jealousy and envy
  • found it difficult to maintain friendships
  • more mistrustful
  • always resentful about not “getting enough” (entitlement issues)
  • more likely to overreact to irritations with a sharp temper, so provoking fights and arguments
  • easily frustrated and angered
  • more likely to procrastinate and not complete projects
  • feel overwhelmed by stress
  • lower self-image
  • poorer students

The ones who deferred gratification?

  • decisive
  • mature
  • self-reliant
  • trustworthy
  • more likely to complete projects
  • dependable
  • less likely to go to pieces under stress
  • less likely to become disorganized under pressure
  • more persistent in the face of difficulties
  • eager to learn
  • more easygoing
  • able to cope with frustration
  • positive self-image
  • more competent academically

Furthermore the kids who delayed gratification, when checked up on years later, scored an average of 210 points higher on their SATs than the kids who immediately ate the one marshmallow. To put it into perspective, that gap is as high as the difference shown between kids from families with graduates degrees versus kids whose parents who never completed high school.

The kids who didn’t eat the marshmallows are considered to be future-oriented, meaning they can sacrifice the immediate gratification the comes from short term pleasures in favor of the long-term benefits that come from delaying gratification and focusing on what’s truly important.  And as the study shows, the inability to control impulses and have patience is a sign of childishness, while the ability to defer gratification is a more adult trait. Being future-oriented is a major element in being an adult and being successful in the long-term.

What is interesting is when you read the traits that correspond with many pathologies, they sound identical to the traits exhibited by the kids who couldn’t resist the marshmallows. This is no surprise since many mental disorders are considered to be the result of being stuck at a childlike stage of psychic development, either due to trauma or excessive pampering in youth. For example, many of the traits described for the kids who are 1 marshmallow are the same symptoms mentioned by mental health professionals when describing pathological behavior such as narcissism, psychopathy and drug addiction.

In fact, every one of those traits is listed in every books I’ve read describing narcissists. Narcissists are basically bratty children inhabiting the bodies of adults. Poor behavior and attitudes that would have been acceptable or at least understandable in a four year old, they still possess.

We’re going to deeper into the impications of the marshmallow experiment when I discuss my major post for 2011, the Primary and Secondary Theaters of Operation.

Recommended Reading:

Here’s a New Yorker Magazine article by Jonah Lehrer discussing the marshmallow experiment in much greater depth than I did here.

Also a really smart blog post on the marshmallow experiment and how it relates to procrastination that I highly recommend.

We Have Met the Enemy: Self-Control in an Age of Excess by Daniel Akst. This books discusses the marshmallow experiment specifically and self-control problems in general, and the bigger ramifications self-control issues have on how we live our lives. Very good.

Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman. This classic book discusses the marshmallow experiment at length also, and was the book where many people first encountered it.

The Time Paradox: The New Psychology of Time That Will Change Your Life by Philip Zimbardo. As you can see from the video linked above, this book is all about the marshmallow experiment, being future-oriented and the implications it has for your life and success. Honestly though, I have not read this book for myself so I can’t vouch for it personally. But since it’s relevant I linked it anyway.

For Your Listening Pleasure:

A 15-minute Radiolab episode discussing the marshmallow test and its implications:

10 Responses to “Raw Concepts: Future Orientation, or Marshmallow Eating”

  1. How does this reconcile with the wisdom of living in the present instead of mortgaging off the future. We train our children to defer pleasure just so they can become corporate psychopaths and plunder the earth right now? No sense of frugality?

    I see this as fishy.

  2. Charles, it’s basically a classic case of a balancing act.

    You can live in the present without spending an excessive amount of money on novelty crap that will be collecting dust in a week or two. You can also live in the present without having most of the hours of your day eaten up by television and random web surfing. Finally, living in the present can also occur in a positive context: enjoying doing figure drawing studies that will add to your skill set that will enable you to get the illustration career you want in the future.

    Be present minded; enjoy the present and what you are doing in that present moment, but do things in the present, or at least do them in such a way, that will encourage fruitfulness in the future.

  3. In essence we make our children like adults so our adults can be like children. It’s twisted.

  4. I had a girlfriend who was actually a part of this experiment. Ate the marshmallow instantly. She had a lot of the traits on the impatient list: prone to jealousy and envy, entitlement issues, procrastinator, low self-image, very stressful, etc. But she also scored about a 1500 on the SAT and got into Princeton. Her brother also was a part of the experiment, waited for more marshmallows, and doesn’t really have a direction in life now. So, anecdotal evidence I know, but just remember that people are complex and a lot of things factor into how you eventually turn out, even when you’re dealing with traits that are strongly statistically significant indicators of future behavior.

  5. Wayfarer, the study speaks more toward pathologies than it does toward long-term success. Sometimes there’s high correlation, but sometimes like you point out there isn’t.

    For example I know a few highly-functional narcissists or sociopaths who seem to be able to do very well in school and career. I had one boss for example who was only a narcissistic nutcase with underlings but knew how to really impress and flatter his higher-ups so that they had no idea of how dysfunctional he was making the workplace for everyone else.

    I do think the marshmallow test is good for spotting pathologies, as shown by the fact your ex had jealousy and envy issues, entitlement, procrastination, low self-image, etc. But I totally agree that we shouldn’t assume that having those pathologies will ALWAYS lead to life failure or poor performance in EVERYONE, as some people are high-functioning narcissists and psychopaths. Despite your ex’s personality problems, she definitely seems to have had the rarer high-functioning style of pathology.

  6. Wayfarer, I am curious though, what was her brother’s personality like? Despite lacking direction, does he seem well-adjusted personality-wise?

  7. heya, great weblog, and a great understand! definitely one for my book marks.

  8. *Reads Charles post*

    Oooooooooooooooooooookay. So your logic is that delaying gratification turns you into an evil corporationy corporatist, while completely living in the moment makes you into a kombaya singing hippie?

    My apologies to everyone for trying to reason with this fellow. I was ignorant of the fact that this guy was the local nutjob.

  9. You misread what I wrote. Only a fool would think I’m advocating senseless gratification. That’s why I used the pluralism of harmony in the post. It’s biting satire which is averse to binary thinking. My last comment still stands. Everything is contextual. You’re apology is accepted.

  10. This is certainly something I need to find more information about, thanks for the posting.