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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Don't Stare at the Marshmallow

Among the interesting things I've read this summer is last month's New Yorker article by Jonah Lehrer, which tells the story of Stanford psychologists' study of four-year-olds and their self-control.  In the study, each young subject was presented with a marshmallow and the choice between eating it right away or instead waiting while the researcher stepped out of the room for a few minutes -- in which case he or she would receive TWO marshmallows upon the researcher's return.  Thirty percent of kids studied -- pegged as "high delayers" by the reseachers -- were able to delay their gratification until the researcher's return fifteen minutes later.  The others -- "low delayers" -- lasted just a few minutes (and sometimes just a few seconds) before eating the marshmallow. 

The researchers identified the "strategic allocation of attention" as the crucial skill that distinguished high- and low-delayers.  High-delayers, for example, found ways to distract themselves by turning their backs on the coveted marshmallow, covering their eyes, playing games, or singing songs.  Low-delayers, in contrast, generally couldn't stop themselves from staring at -- and thus thinking about -- the wonderful treat before them.

Tracking their subjects as they grew older, the psychologists found that high-delayers were less likely to experience behavioral problems and more likely to enjoy academic success than their low-delaying counterparts.  (Indeed, another researcher found that the ability to delay gratification -- measured, for example, by the choice between taking a dollar right away or two dollars the following week -- was a far better predictor of eighth-graders' academic performance than IQ scores.)  They concluded, not surprisingly, that kids with a more accurate understanding of their own inclinations for immediate gratification come up with strategies to distract themselves from temptation -- and that such strategies pay off in terms of increased study time and other investments in beneficial activities that require self-discipline. 

Perhaps most important for those of us in the education field, the researchers found that they could teach low-delayers certain strategies for managing their thoughts in ways that dramatically increased their capacity for self-control.  Parents, as well as teachers, have a huge role to play in demonstrating not only that waiting can be worthwhile but also that one can develop habits of delay that lead to greater patience.  In the words of lead researcher Walter Mischel (as quoted by Lehrer):  "We should give marshmallows to every kindergartner . . . .We should say, 'You see this marshmallow?  You don't have to eat it.  You can wait.  Here's how.'"

Posted by Helen Norton on June 10, 2009 at 05:39 PM | Permalink


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Reading this post is staring at the marshmallow. Commenting is eating it. My life is over.

Mmm . . . if I had rice krispies to go with the marshmallow . . .

Posted by: anonner | Jun 12, 2009 2:31:28 PM

what if I just want one marshmallow and that's it? no need to delay then.

Posted by: ricey | Jun 11, 2009 2:11:10 AM

Maybe the low-delayer kids just understand the time value of marshmallows.

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Jun 10, 2009 11:08:01 PM

So how do you not stare at the marshmallow? I'd look at the article and figure out for myself, but I can't stop staring at my rss feed...

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Jun 10, 2009 9:21:29 PM

Maybe every time the low-delayer kids are about to do something accomplished they think "Eh, I couldn't even not eat that marshmallow when I was 5. There's no way I could be a doctor/lawyer/rocket scientists."

Posted by: anon | Jun 10, 2009 6:38:26 PM

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