Life can be extremely frustrating so we must stay curious
and be open to learning. If we want to be the CEO of our lives, we need to be
able to manage our frustration. What can we learn from the famous marshmallow
experiment? We will explore the experiment and I’ll end this article with a
couple of questions for your consideration.
Remember our theme is becoming the CEO of our lives. This means that we commit to being in charge of our ways of being. This includes our thoughts, feelings and behaviors and a willingness to test our beliefs. I refer to these ways of being as conditioned “cow paths” that have a programmed reality. While innate tendencies exist, we each can learn and grow into a better version of ourselves.
The marshmallow experiment is a classic social psychology experiment made famous by social psychologist Walter Mischel & associates in the 1960s. The study has been replicated many times with samples that are more represented of the general population and with changes to the study design.
At the end of the day these studies looked at children’s ability to manage frustration and delay gratification. Long term follow-up of young participants suggested that children who were able to delay gratification became higher functioning adults and even suggest that delayers have more active prefrontal cortex involvement (this is the opposite of primitive robotic mode).
Newer research from Watts et al. in 2018 suggests that children from higher socio-economic families find it easier to delay gratification because they are less apt to be fighting for resources and know that there will always be a treat tomorrow. This research questions whether long term success has less to do with the ability to delay gratification and more to do with having a leg up if life.
Fundamentally, the new argument is that life circumstances have more to do with success then does the natural ability to delay our gratification. If there isn’t going to be any marshmallows tomorrow it might make sense to get what you can immediately. If we have learned not to trust that a reward will be coming for our patience and persistence, we develop a “right now” mentality.
Yet don’t we all know adults who had every advantage growing up but feel unsuccessful? Some of them are downright miserable. We also know people who have come from highly disadvantaged backgrounds but have managed to create happy successful lives.
Replicating studies and questioning outcomes is the bread and butter of all science but we need to be able to sift through information and look for practical applications. The useful data that comes from the famous and subsequent studies is this:
1.-developing strategies to manage the frustration of delay is important regardless of whether we come from a privileged background or not.
2.-the ability to regulate ourselves, manage our will power and have self control have a cognitive skills basis.
3-that if we were unable to resist or delay as children, we can still develop the ability as adults.
4.-to do well, we need to be able to regulate our thinking and take the future into account.
But the reality is that self-control can be hard to access when we are stressed. Living in the here and now is a popular idea, but if we do not have a strong motivation to protect and care for the future self it is easy to forsake the second marshmallow. Whether the ability manage frustration is innate or not we all still need coping strategies.
The studies are available online. If you are so inclined, I suggest that you go to YouTube and use “marshmallow experiment” as a keyword search. The videos are quite adorable and show the strategies that some children use to avoid eating one marshmallow, in order to get two marshmallows a little bit later. Some children avoid looking at the treat, focus on something else or tell themselves stories while others sing songs or fell asleep to manage the frustration. We all know that a nap can often do us a lot of good
If we are to be in charge of ourselves, we need strategies to manage our frustration. Instant gratification does not always serve us in the long run. It is irrelevant as to whether we naturally steer towards delay or a “right now” impulse. If we want a better future for ourselves, we need strategies.
As promised here are a couple of questions for your consideration:
1. If marshmallows aren’t your thing, and they are not mine, think of something else that you would love to enjoy right now. What would it take for you to put off that enjoyment in order to receive an even better reward in the near future?
2. How would you keep your willpower reserves strong in order to do that?
Terri Lee Cooper MSc. RSW