In 1972, Walter Mischell published his classic marshmallow study. Preschoolers were given a single marshmallow but were told that if they waited 15 minutes, they could have 2 marshmallows. Those who could wait the longest apparently demonstrated greater willpower than those who could not wait. Moreover, they were followed over the course of decades and apparently had long term success in life including higher academic, economic, and social competence because they could delay gratification.
The Marshmallow Study has been cited over and over again about the value of delaying gratification. Now in 2012, another team of researchers led by Celeste Kidd has shown something quite different. Taking the marshmallow immediately might just be a rational choice. The new study manipulated a key condition: the reliability of the subjects environment.
First, the young subjects were given poor quality art supplies and were told if they waited, they would get better quality supplies. In the reliable condition, the subjects got better supplies. In the unreliable condition, they the experimenter came back and said there were no such upgraded supplies. The Marshmallow Test followed and the results were stunning.
Those who were in the reliable condition lasted 12 minutes waiting for the second marshmallow. Those who had been in the unreliable condition lasted only 3 minutes before they ate the marshmallow! A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush as the old saying goes.
While no one argues that being able to delay gratification is beneficial in life, this study suggests that it is much more than an innate quality. Socioeconomic status, reliable consistent parenting, and trust might all be factors that influence decision making style. It’s incorrect to presume it’s a lack of innate willpower.
The study caught my attention for several reasons, including the one listed above. The capacity for delayed gratification is not wholly innate. What’s more though, is that one must remain flexible about drawing conclusions about the brain and behavior and it is rarely a linear equation. In this case, willpower is certainly a critical factor but so is the environmental influence and that can certainly be manipulated to achieve different outcomes. Once again we are reminded, human behavior is multi-factorial.
I also wonder if the real question is not which style is better, waiting or taking advantage of a current opportunity. I would propose that real success would come from knowing which one works best given the situation. What do you think?
Thank you Scientific American Magazine March/April 2013 for writing about this new study.