As I and the rest of Penn’s student body move into Van Pelt Prison and buckle down for the rest of the semester, I try to remind myself of a study I read years ago: Much more so than IQ, your ability to resist the temptation of a marshmallow when you’re four years old is one of the strongest predictors of how successful you will be later in life. Not a lot of comfort at 4 a.m. the night before a midterm, but it does help.
The theory stems from one of the most famous psychological studies ever conducted, now popularly known as the Marshmallow Experiment.
In the 1960s, Stanford researchers gave preschool students their choice of treat — a cookie, pretzel or marshmallow — and told them they could eat it right away, but that if they waited while the researcher stepped out of the room, they could have two treats when he returned.
The method may seem trivial, but the results are highly consequential. As part of an elite student body — comprised of future doctors, politicians, astronauts and movie stars — you might be surprised just how much your fundamental ability to exert self-control is expected to factor into your future. It’s all about delayed gratification — your willingness to suffer now to benefit maximally later.
Some kids devoured their marshmallows without hesitation. Others pulled their hair and covered their eyes before eventually giving in. Only 30 percent of preschoolers were able to resist the tantalizing treat in front of them for 15 minutes until the researcher returned, earning the much sought-after second marshmallow.
At this point, you probably have a pretty good idea about which group you’d fall in. Need a hand? Think back to that Sunday morning you woke up to your alarm at 8:00 in the morning, exhausted, knowing that you had a paper to write. Did you hop in the shower? Did you press snooze — once, five times, 20 times?
The study tracked the preschoolers into adulthood and found that those who were able to wait for a greater reward had more academic success, fewer behavioral problems and better social skills than their marshmallow-gobbling counterparts.
Like a typical grade-obsessed Penn student, one detail of the study really caught my eye — the children who were able to wait the 15 minutes scored, on average, 210 points higher on the SATs over a decade later than children that lasted only 30 seconds.
And it’s surprising how many of us still wrestle with self-control and temptation. After all, the payoffs seem obvious. When asked how she thought she would have performed in preschool, College sophomore Stephanie Rogan laughed, “I worry about my own self-control.” However, she believes that “most people tend to look toward the immediate reward.”
But if you’re one of the many that can’t say no to a delicious, puffy, sugary marshmallow (and excuse me while I go devour a bag), you’re not destined to a life of second-rate achievement, according to the study’s lead author, Walter Mischel. He and his colleagues found that children were able to learn simple mental tricks that dramatically improved their self-control.
“Once you realize that willpower is just a matter of learning how to control your attention and thoughts, you can really begin to increase it,” Mischel said in an interview earlier this year.
As one who suffers from the — ahem — occasional lapse in willpower, I’m thrilled to hear this.
By recognizing your willpower weaknesses, you can take conscious measures to improve your self-control. You can’t do that to your base level of intelligence.
So the next time you reach for the snooze button, pull out your VISA card or say, “Yeah, sure — I’ll have one more” take a step back and remind yourself — you don’t have to eat the marshmallow. And if you can resist the temptation, you’ll be better off in the long run.
Sally Engelhart is a College sophomore from Toronto. Her e-mail address is email@example.comComments powered by Disqus
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