Delayed Gratification

There’s a famous psychology experiment conducted many years ago at the Bing Nursery School, located on the campus of Stanford. Children were told they could eat one treat right away, or wait until the researcher came back in the room, and then they could have two treats. Most kids, once they realized there was no adult in the room, decided to eat whatever they could cram in their mouths, rules be damned. Some children were able to exhibit self-control, however. These kids turned out to be statistically much higher achievers, and less apt to have issues such as substance abuse and obesity later in life.

Box of Cherries

Jonah Lehrer of The New Yorker writes:

Footage of these experiments, which were conducted over several years, is poignant, as the kids struggle to delay gratification for just a little bit longer. Some cover their eyes with their hands or turn around so that they can’t see the tray. Others start kicking the desk, or tug on their pigtails, or stroke the marshmallow as if it were a tiny stuffed animal. One child, a boy with neatly parted hair, looks carefully around the room to make sure that nobody can see him. Then he picks up an Oreo, delicately twists it apart, and licks off the white cream filling before returning the cookie to the tray, a satisfied look on his face.

Most of the children were like Craig. They struggled to resist the treat and held out for an average of less than three minutes. “A few kids ate the marshmallow right away,” Walter Mischel, the Stanford professor of psychology in charge of the experiment, remembers. “They didn’t even bother ringing the bell. Other kids would stare directly at the marshmallow and then ring the bell thirty seconds later.” About thirty per cent of the children, however, were like Carolyn. They successfully delayed gratification until the researcher returned, some fifteen minutes later. These kids wrestled with temptation but found a way to resist.

Mischel began to notice a link between the children’s academic performance as teen-agers and their ability to wait for the second marshmallow. He asked his daughters to assess their friends academically on a scale of zero to five. Comparing these ratings with the original data set, he saw a correlation. “That’s when I realized I had to do this seriously,” he says. Starting in 1981, Mischel sent out a questionnaire to all the reachable parents, teachers, and academic advisers of the six hundred and fifty-three subjects who had participated in the marshmallow task, who were by then in high school. He asked about every trait he could think of, from their capacity to plan and think ahead to their ability to “cope well with problems” and get along with their peers. He also requested their S.A.T. scores.

Once Mischel began analyzing the results, he noticed that low delayers, the children who rang the bell quickly, seemed more likely to have behavioral problems, both in school and at home. They got lower S.A.T. scores. They struggled in stressful situations, often had trouble paying attention, and found it difficult to maintain friendships. The child who could wait fifteen minutes had an S.A.T. score that was, on average, two hundred and ten points higher than that of the kid who could wait only thirty seconds.

[Click to read more of Dept. of Science: Don’t!: Reporting & Essays: The New Yorker]

Fascinating stuff. Wonder how my five-year old nephew would do? Wonder why self-control is important to later achievement1?

And a totally unrelated thought: how funny is it that Microsoft named its new Google-killer search engine after a nursery, in Stanford of all places. Stanford of course was the birthplace of Google.

  1. he asks, thinking of all the late night sessions, in school, and even in the present day, working on presentations the night before they are due []

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