Of Marshmallows and Delay

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Rebecca Lolo

When I was in my first year in high school I had an English teacher who wanted to help all her students succeed in her class, but more than that she wanted to see all of us succeed in life. 

She had a list of things on the wall that she wanted to teach us – life skills or guides to live by type things.  One item on that list has stood out to me all these years – Delay Gratification.

The first time I heard that phrase I had no clue what my English teacher was talking about.  She explained the concept of putting off a small reward for a larger one later on.  She taught us the dangers that can often come from instant gratification; the larger reward we give up when we immediately seek to satisfy our every want. 

Years later I heard of The Marshmallow Experiment done by Stanford University in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  

In this experiment they tested hundreds of four and five year-olds and their ability to delay gratification.  

One at a time the children were brought into a room and seated behind a table.  They were then given a marshmallow, and told that if they waited to eat it until the researcher returned they would get a second marshmallow, but if they ate it before the researcher returned they wouldn’t get a second marshmallow.   The researcher then left for about 15 minutes.

Their choice was simple: one small reward now or a larger reward later if they waited.

Some of the children immediately ate the marshmallow the second the researcher left the room.  Some held out for a little while, you can imagine the antics of the kids as they struggled to not eat the marshmallow, but ultimately gave in and ate it.  A few were able to wait the entire 15 minutes and were given their additional reward.

The results of this study are even more interesting over time.  For forty years the researchers followed the lives of these children and did some follow-up studies.  They found that those who chose to delay gratification were more successful in life.  

Some of the differences noted were they scored higher on university entrance exams, had lower rates of obesity and substance abuse, responded better to stress and had better social skills.  

Every time they tested them the children who chose to delay gratification were more successful at what was being tested.

In today’s fast world of want it now, get now, some may wonder why we should ever need to delay gratification.  Gone are the days where prudence in seeking gratification for every desire was preached.  

We have become spoiled by the idea (and the ability to deliver on that idea) that if we have a desire or want, we should fill that desire now; the faster the better. 

We get impatient in lines at stores or banks often feeling entitled to being served right away.  If we are hungry we have fast food places everywhere that can get us our food in minutes.  If we post a status on Facebook we can get instant feedback from friends. 

In our fast-paced world do we see the benefit of delaying a small reward now for a bigger one later?  Do we see the success that comes into our lives as we delay gratification?  I see it in my life when I choose to forego the comfort of my bed in the mornings to get up early and help kids get ready for school and out the door on time reducing the stress and frustrations in our home.  

I see it in the lives of my children as they give up watching a movie now to do their homework and as a result learn more and get the greater reward of good grades.  

I see it in my friend’s life when she gives up her favorite desert and junk food and makes healthier food choices helping ensure that she will be around to enjoy her grandchildren someday.  I see it in the life of the recovering alcoholic who every minute of every day gives up the escape of alcohol for the blessing of being sober and the ability to live life with intention.

Our ability to delay gratification is critical to our success in life.  

When we seek to gratify every desire instantly we lose the ability to learn from patience.  We severely diminish our ability to learn and use self-control. 

 Mostly we lose the greater rewards in life.

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