Would You Pass the Marshmallow Test?

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By Bill Auxier, Ph.D.

Imagine that you are four years old, put in a small room all by yourself, with a solitary marshmallow to keep you company.  The adult that accompanied you into the room told you that you could either eat the marshmallow right now, or, wait 15 minutes, and the adult would return with a second marshmallow and you could then eat two marshmallows.  The adult left and you were now on your own.  What would you do?

This is exactly what Walter Mischel did back in the 1960s.  Mischel was a professor of psychology at Columbia University whose interest was in self-control.  His tests became known as “the marshmallow test” and he wrote a book by that same name.

Most children said they would wait, and many did, but some ate the marshmallow immediately.  Long-term follow up suggests that the children who had the ability to wait 15 minutes had fewer behavioral problems such as drug addiction or childhood obesity.  The children who were able to wait had greater academic success and on average, had SAT scores 210 points higher than the children who didn’t wait.  As adults, the children who delayed eating their marshmallow have a higher average income and are better able to deal with stress and rejection.

Marshmallow 2

So what does that have to do with leadership?

Leaders need to be future focused.  Sometimes it’s just as hard for a leader to be patient to achieve an objective as it is for a four year old to wait 15 minutes to eat a marshmallow!  Children who were able to wait used a variety of tactics to delay their gratification:  imagining the marshmallow as a cloud, putting a frame around it to make it abstract, turning around so they couldn’t see it, covering their eyes and kicking the desk.

When a leader needs to exercise willpower and delay gratification, just like the four year olds, there are things you can do to help control those instant gratification impulses and kicking your desk probably isn’t the best option.  The first step is to realize when this situation is happening.  Keeping a journal can help you identify the triggers that affect your willpower along with soliciting feedback from others.  Once you are able to recognize that you want immediate gratification but think it would be better to delay it, future imaging, deep breathing, self-talk and meditation are some of the techniques you can use.  This takes time, but this process will empower you to isolate and deal with situations that erode your willpower.

All this doesn’t mean that the children who couldn’t wait are low achievers.  In fact, quite the opposite!  Low delayers (quick marshmallow eaters) don’t lack general intelligence, and quick action takers can be extremely important at times.  During periods of uncertainty, delaying gratification may be the wrong choice.  Great explorers and cutting edge entrepreneurs are often people who follow their impulse.  Leaders need to react quickly sometimes to take advantage of opportunities.  Steve Jobs is an excellent example of this.

The key is finding the right balance of when to delay gratification and when to jump on an opportunity.  Regardless of whether your four-year-old self would eat the marshmallow immediately or wait fifteen minutes, the good news is that if you need to adjust your gratification time-line, you have the ability to change.

How long did your four-year-old self wait to eat your marshmallow?


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