In the late nineteen-sixties, the Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel began a series of experiments with nursery school children. The experiment was simple: children were given the choice of either having one marshmallow right away or, if they could wait for a few minutes, they could have two marshmallows. Writing about this research in the May 18th New Yorker, Jonah Lehrer explains that the children then were left alone with the treats – creating a test of young children’s ability to delay gratification. As we might imagine, most of the kids polished off the marshmallows within a couple of minutes. Nearly a third of the children, however, successfully delayed gratification until the researcher returned, some fifteen minutes later.
What makes this story even more interesting is what happened to these children later in life. By high school, the children who couldn’t wait (low delayers), were more likely to have behavioral problems, both in school and at home. They got lower SAT scores. They struggled in stressful situations, often had trouble paying attention, and found it difficult to maintain friendships. Meanwhile, the children who were able to wait the full fifteen minutes at age four, had SAT scores two hundred and ten points higher than kids who could wait only thirty seconds. And by their late thirties, low-delaying adults had significantly higher body-mass indexes and were more likely to have had problems with drugs.
Why were some children able to delay gratification? Professor Mischel explains that children who were more successful in the experiment had developed better skills for the “strategic allocation of attention.” They covered their eyes, pretended to play hide and seek, or sang songs. These same skills remain critically important throughout life; coming into play, for example, as high schoolers choose between studying for the SAT or watching television.
The ability to delay gratification may have a class component as well. When Professor Mischel gave delay of gratification tasks to children from low-income families he noticed that their ability to delay was below average. “When you grow up poor, you might not practice delay as much, and if you don’t practice then you’ll never figure out how to distract yourself. You won’t develop the best delay strategies.”
But what if we could teach children simple mental tricks – such as pretending the marshmallows are only a picture, surrounded by an imaginary frame? Michel found that such tricks dramatically improved children’s self-control. Working with the KIPP academies and a number of other schools, the researchers are now looking at the degree to which self-control can be taught. In a series of studies with students between the ages of four and eight, this research uses peer modeling, such as showing kindergartners a video of a child successfully distracting herself during the marshmallow task.
The real challenge, though, is turning these tricks into habits. “This is where parents are important,” Michel says. Have they established rituals that force you to delay on a daily basis? Do they encourage you to wait? And do they make waiting worthwhile? … Even the most mundane routines of childhood – such as not snacking before dinner, or saving up your allowance, or holding out until Christmas morning – are really sly exercises in cognitive training: we’re teaching our selves how to think so that we can outsmart our desires.”