April 16, 2012

Marshmallows, Willpower, and Success

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Paul King, MD

Parkwood Behavioral Health System, Olive Branch, Mississippi


The 2 most consistent characteristics that predict success in school are IQ and self-control. In a previous blog post, I pointed out that the commitment of parents is also crucial. While IQ cannot be modified, teaching children to delay gratification can have a major positive impact.

In the 1960s, Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel and colleagues began an experiment involving preschoolers. Each child was placed in a small room with treats, such as marshmallows, on a table. Before they were left alone, the children were told to choose a treat. If they waited to eat the treat until the researcher returned, then they could eat their chosen treat plus another one. If they couldn’t wait, then they could eat only 1 treat. Some children would not wait and immediately ate the marshmallow; others tried to resist the urge but eventually gave in; and others were able to wait the 15 minutes for the increased reward. The children who resisted the impulse were able to delay gratification by distracting themselves. Years later, Mischel and colleagues found that those children who had delayed eating the marshmallow were more successful. They scored higher on the SAT, were more likely to finish college, had fewer problems with alcohol and drugs, and earned higher salaries.

Entrepreneurs often describe their early years of struggling and persevering before finding success. Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, stated in the Wall Street Journal, “Every sacrifice [by an entrepreneur] and deferred gratification makes them wiser and better, showing them that they’re not getting anything for free.”

Malcolm Gladwell, in his 2008 best-selling book Outliers: The Story of Success, stated that success in every field of endeavor is related to years of practice and study; there are no shortcuts. He calls this the “10,000 Hour Rule.” For example, John Lennon pointed out in an interview that, early in their career, the Beatles played all-nighters in strip clubs in Hamburg, Germany. Those many, many hours of play gave the band the needed preparation for their later success, says Gladwell. Regarding the success of the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools, Gladwell states, “The day goes from 7:25 [am] until 5:00 pm. After 5:00, there are homework clubs, detention, sports teams. . . . Kids are spending 50% to 60% more time learning than the traditional public school student.”

Roy F. Baumeister has been working in this area for years. In the 1994 book Losing Control: How and Why People Fail at Self-Regulation, he and his colleagues stated that “Self-regulation failure is the major social pathology of our time.” In a more recent book (2011), Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, Baumeister and John Tierney concluded that “people with good self-control mainly use it . . . to develop effective habits and routines in school and at work.” It’s not a matter of using willpower only to resist temptations. Raising children with self-control as a priority leads to success both in school and in life.

Financial disclosure:Dr King had no relevant personal financial relationships to report.​

Category: Mental Illness
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17 thoughts on “Marshmallows, Willpower, and Success

  1. Interesting article. Good reference materials. Almost all religions stress self-control as an attribute. Successful business people (as pointed out in this article) usually master the concept of self-control. It seems that once the concept of self-control begins to diminish within a society, the family unit and economy seem to unravel. What do you think?
  2. I work in addiction medicine, and am a recovering person myself. Very interesting, I would probably still eat the marshmellow immediately!
  3. This is no surprise to me. I think ADHD could explain a large part of these results. People with ADHD have great difficulty with impulsivity and delaying gratification and they have academic and occupational underachievement. By the way are there any computer games that reward delayed gratification, like “Mother may I ?” did in prior generations. It would be easily marketable to CHADD members. I’ll take 10% for the idea.
  4. Right on Dr. King. I am afraid American Culture has self-esteemed our children into oblivion. Feeling good is the result of doing good that comes from effort and hard work. Children are not dumb and know this.

    Also interesting that self-control is one of “Fruits of the Spirits: mentioned in the New Testament. My grandfather and father taught it to me this way, “Son, you better think before you jump”. I am thankful every day for their wisdom.

  5. There is a lot to be said about the value of the most basic teachings from the Old and New Testaments. If it were not for the biblical teachings where would our society be today?????
  6. The bigger question is what determines that some are better at delaying gratification than others. If it is, like most other human characteristics, related to nature vs nurture interactions then can it be developed if you dont have it?
  7. The late M. Scott Peck, M.D. expanded on this idea in his very popular book back in the 1980’s;”The Road Less Traveled” in which he viewed the process of psychotherapy as helping clients approach their life’s problems with 4 principle attitudes:1) Delay of gratification; 2) Adherence to the truth; 3) A balance between saying what is right, but saying it with love and compassion; 4) Acceptance of the responsibility to act and not expecting someone else to step in and carry that responsibility for you. Leave one of these principles out of the problem-solving approach and you create more/worse problems than you started out with.
  8. Gregory: I certainly agree with you and I remember reading “The Road Less Travelled.” These principle need to be taught to children at an early age and then reinforced by school and church. The primary place for this teaching is in the home. Our society is suffering today as a result of too many parents not performing this necessary direct instruction of one’s children.
  9. I wonder if there is any connection in the inability to delay gratification and the loss of control that is found in alcohola and drug dependence???
  10. And did any explain that they only wanted one, anyway? A scenario becoming increasingly unlikely in the current climate of poor dietary choices .
  11. I am a behavior intervention therapist and am constantly trying to teach delayed gratification to students who are problems in the classroom. Delaying gratification also helps with anger control issues, which many of these children have! It really starts with the parents who are supposed to be teaching these values. Unfortunately the teachers/schools are being blamed for “not teaching” these things and then get blamed as to “why are the children learning?”. If the parents, themselves haven’t learned delayed gratification, and haven’t passed this onto their children during the first 5 years of the “imprinting” stage of their lives, then how can society blame others for these children not having the skills they need? Parents are the major key factor in teaching delayed gratification as well as other basic skills.
  12. Jeffrey: You have hit the nail on the nature of the problem and the conflict between schools and parents. I urge you to click on to the Wall Street Journal article I cited called “Why the French Make Better Parents”. French parents do teach willpower and frustration tolerance, American parents do not!!!!
  13. In my work as a clinical psychologist I see this issue played out, often. Our whole culture seems bent on “having it our way” now. As for the nature vs. nurture question, it is not likely to be either-or, but both and. Height is a good example to think about – nuturition plays a role in how tall someone will be, within genetic limits. Probably applies to most characteristics whether physical, emotional, or cognitive.
  14. Fantastic article. I’ve read the books by Gladwell and Baumeister, and they are both interesting and well informed. There is another book by Heidi Halvorson, social psychologist from Lehigh University that is quite good as well. Her’s is a bit more of a ‘how to’ manual from applying lessons from research on self regulation. If you are interested in this area of research, I’d suggest checking out the reviews on Amazon about her work.
  15. Nicely written article and I enjoyed it. It intriges me to notice the wisdom of the passages in the Hebrew and Greek Writings of the Bible that pertain to self-control, seeking goals with patience and self-love. I think of all the money and time that could be saved if people just believed and followed the counsel in the bible instead of multiple studies being done to prove or disprove what has been in our knowledge base for 2-3,000 years. I am not a religious person but I have respect for the book. I quoted one simple scripture in my class i teach, addictionology, and I had students/patients scurring writing it down and it opened up an inspiring conversation.

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