What a Marshmallow Can Teach You About Self-Control

delayed gratification


“Great things come to those who wait”

Do you struggle with temptation?

Maybe you find yourself using every ounce of  your energy forcing yourself not check Facebook every 5 minutes. Or  you tell yourself you’re not going to eat another slice of pizza, even though a part of you is telling you how amazing it’d be if you did. Or you struggle with getting out of bed in the morning because it’s so comfy and nice under the sheets.

Doing the right thing is hard, and without self-control, we’d give in to every temptation, and would NEVER make any progress towards our goals. It’s hard because you’re prioritizing your future self, and we know how awful we tend to treat our future self.

“This is something for future me to worry about.”

delayed gratification

As much as we’d like to let our future selves to take care of things, the ability to show self-control has been shown to be an important factor in determining success. So we kinda have to prioritize it and make a bigger deal than we do.

The ability to delay gratification (a fancy way to say “resist the urge”) is an essential element of being able to reach your ultimate goal. Whether it be saving money now to spend later or turning off the TV now so you won’t have to cram for your exam later. These examples are just a couple where delayed gratification can bring about tremendous returns while developing your willpower.

But to truly see how important self-control is, we need the help of a marshmallow.

A marshmallow?

The power of delayed gratification is best demonstrated in what is known as the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment back in the late 60s and early 70s by psychologist Walter Mischel. Here’s how it worked:

A researcher presents a child with a marshmallow. The researchers tells the child he’s going to leave the room for a few of minutes. Before the researcher leaves, he gives the child 2 choices when it comes to eating the marshmallow:

  1. The child can wait until the researcher returned and get a second marshmallow to eat. OR
  2. The child can ring a bell, which will signal the researcher to return to the room, which would allow the child to the eat the marshmallow on the plate. (There’s no bonus marshmallow in this scenario)

You can imagine the struggle these kids went through of resisting that tasty marshmallow sitting right in front of them. (You can actually YouTube marshmallow test to see actual kids squirm in their chair. If you want, you can watch a video of the Marshmallow Test below.)

As entertaining as that video is, getting a good laugh at the expense of the kids wasn’t Dr. Mischel’s intention. What he wanted to do was see if there was a correlation between success and a child’s ability to delay gratification.

Success and Delayed Gratification

Though this experiment is famous for the marshmallow experiment, what was really valuable is what happened afterwards. After the experiment, Dr. Mischel kept track of each child and their progress as they grew from preschoolers to young adults. He published his findings in 1972, and what he found was pretty groundbreaking.

Mischel found that the children who delayed gratification and waited to get the second marshmallow ended up having higher SAT scores, lower levels of substance abuse, lower likelihood of obesity, better stress management, better focus, and better scores in a number of other measures.

You may chalk this up to coincidence, but a number of followup studies here, here, and here confirm these findings.

Mischel graded the kids on over three dozen personality traits, and determined that delayed gratification turns out to be the only one that predicts a college student’s grade point average better than chance. 

delayed gratification

But wait, there’s more!

As if following up with the kids through their teens wasn’t enough, Mischel followed each child for more than 40 years. Throughout this period, he kept finding over and over the group who delayed gratification scored better in every category that Mischel measured compared to the poor bastards who couldn’t wait for the second marshmallow.

In other words, this series of experiments shows us:

Delayed gratification is critical for success in life. Click To Tweet


Imagine How Delayed Gratification Could Positively Affect Your Life?

To me, the best thing about this study is that it shows delayed gratification is a skill and a choice. (Sorry if you were going to make the excuse that others are better at this than you.)

Delayed gratification is a choice. Click To Tweet

You can choose to have something now, or you can choose to have something bigger or better at a later time (like a second marshmallow). Delaying gratification improves your willpower and ultimately helps you reach your goals.

Look around, and you can see how delayed gratification is a choice you can make in almost any situation like choosing to watch TV later, so you can study now and get good grades. Or being healthy later by not eating that dessert now.

Success usually comes down to choosing the pain of discipline over the ease of convenience. And that’s exactly what delayed gratification is all about.

Where to Go From Here

“Nothing in the world worth having comes easy.”

The Marshmallow Experiment is a cultural phenomenon. There are “Don’t Eat the Marshmallow!” t-shirts and Sesame Street episodes where Cookie Monster learns delayed gratification. You just can’t get away from it.

cookie monster

But it’s important to not lose sight of what’s really important about the study (and it’s not the laughs we get from watching kids struggle to not eat marshmallows).

The key takeaway is that delayed gratification is one of the most effective personal traits of successful people. People that delay gratification are more successful with their career, relationships, health, finances and really, all areas of life.

In other words, if you want to succeed at something, at some point you’re going to need to show some self-discipline, instead of doing what’s easy. It's impossible to be successful, in anything you do, by doing what's easy over what's hard. Click To Tweet

You probably don’t think you’re any good at delaying gratification – that it’d be impossible for you to pass up that first marshmallow. But the good news is that you can train yourself to improve your self-control. All you have to do is make small improvements.

The reason why the kids who were able to delay their gratification is because they trusted the researchers when they were told they’d get the second marshmallow. You can do this to in your life by creating an environment that promises a result and deliver on it. You can do this by creating small wins.

If you do this over and over again, you’ll create a habit of delayed gratification. Your brain will realize that it’s okay to wait, that it’s better to wait, and that it has the ability to wait.

You have a choice presented to you in every single situation you’re in – are you going to choose to just eat one marshmallow or are you going to wait to get the second one? Mischel’s classic experiment has been replicated many times over and the conclusion is clear:

If you want to be successful in life, what makes the difference is your ability to delay gratification

You’re never going to look at marshmallows the same way ever again, are you?

Thanks for Reading!

If you enjoyed this, we’d love it if you shared it on social media with friends. If you do, we’ll give you a marshmallow! 🙂

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