With her eyes wide open, Sophie glares at the marshmallow as if she’s about to win a staring contest. Charlie sits on both his hands and tries to ignore the presence of the marshmallow, while Will carefully licks the marshmallow in a naïve attempt to satisfy the increasing need to consume the sweet and delicious treat. If the children manage to stay in their seat faced with a marshmallow for 15 minutes without eating it, they get a second marshmallow. That is the Marshmallow test. Even though it sounds like a cute experiment you might want to try on your own children, it has been used within psychology to help us understand delayed gratification since the first conduction at a Stanford preschool in 1972. The experiment teaches us a lot about the suppression of immediate needs and impulses in order to achieve something at a later point – in other words, a future-oriented self-control.
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Relevance for your work life
Delayed gratification and self-control are highly valued skills in a work-related context. If your boss asks you to go on a business trip for the third time this month, will you respond with your immediate impulse of “Forget about it, I’m sick of travelling,” or are you able to control yourself and focus on that promotion or a potential pay rise? In other words, are you able to focus on the future rewards your current efforts might result in? If you were one of the kids who managed to resist the temptation and reach the second marshmallow, there’s a greater chance that you’ll do the latter, and in this way, you’ll have a greater chance of success in your work life. As it turns out, the children who “passed” the marshmallow test had a bunch of desirable characteristics compared to those who didn’t. These include being more attentive, more ease of concentration, being more organized and even more intelligent with better verbal and logical abilities than those who “failed” the marshmallow test. In addition, they display better social skills, better anger management and find it easier to resist temptation. All skills that are highly valued in the professional as well as personal aspects of adult life.
So what if failed that marshmallow test?
Most of us would like to have the aforementioned qualities, so if you’re tempted to test this out on your own children, remember that the result of this test will entirely determine your child’s possibility for future success. And at your next job interview, simply saying that you passed the marshmallow test should be enough for them to hire you.
Maybe not. The correlation between the result of the marshmallow test and the many good qualities is not set in stone. If it was, things are looking rough for many impatient children all over the world. New studies show that there’s hope, even for the marshmallow-eaters.
Bit hungry or neglected as a child?
Turns out the test doesn’t just examine self-control and delay of gratification, but a number of factors impact whether the marshmallow is eaten or not. One of the main factors is the fundamental trust the child has in adults. Children who grew up learning not to trust adults will eat the marshmallow significantly quicker than children who trust adults. When the adult tells the child that they will get another marshmallow in 15 minutes, it’s crucial that the child believes them – if they don’t, why shouldn’t they just eat the marshmallow immediately?
These results open the debate to a number of explanations that move beyond the rigid focus on whether the marshmallow was eaten or not and the correlated behaviors and qualities. With this explanation, your upbringing has a greater impact on the development of these qualities than how hungry you were when you were tested. Your future characteristics cannot be determined from this test only. Celeste Kidd, the researcher behind the new results focusing on trust, warns: “Don’t do the marshmallow test on your kitchen table and conclude something about your child.”
So, if you want to know whether little Sophie, Charlie or Will is going to develop advantageous characteristics like good concentration, anger management and even intelligence, don’t just make them do the marshmallow test. Ensure that your children grow up in a trusting environment, and there will be a greater chance of adult Charlie saying yes to that third business trip and finally getting his pay raise.