It’s Not a Fair Fight If You’re the CEO By...
In the late 1960s, Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel conducted his famous “marshmallow studies” with preschool children at the university’s Bing Nursery School.
Children were shown one marshmallow and told they could choose to eat the marshmallow whenever they wanted. They were also told that a larger reward of two marshmallows would be theirs if they waited for up to 20 minutes without eating the marshmallow. It was a vivid choice between immediate gratification and delayed gratification.
The child would sit alone at a table facing one marshmallow and a desk bell that could be rung at any time to call back the researcher and eat the marshmallow. Or the child could wait for the researcher to return and, if the marshmallow remained uneaten, receive two marshmallows.
Follow-up research on the children years later led Mischel to conclude that the subjects who waited for the two marshmallows had higher SAT scores, better educational achievement, and lower body mass index. These studies eventually led to Mischel’s 1994 book, The Marshmallow Test: Why Self-Control Is the Engine of Success, establishing the test as one of the rare laboratory studies about human behavior that has become a cultural touchstone.
Later studies questioned the soundness of the original test. Affluent kids with highly educated parents in the Stanford University community were more likely to be brought up in an environment where the rewards from delayed gratification were more obvious than what poor kids with less educated parents were used to. These children were also more likely to believe that the authority figure—the experimenter—would deliver the reward.
Broadly defined, delayed gratification means resisting smaller, pleasurable rewards now for larger, more significant rewards later. Much of the psychology literature deifies delayed gratification, linking it with all we associate with “achievement.” We are relentlessly bombarded with the virtue of sacrificing immediate pleasure to achieve long-term results.
But there’s another way to look at the Marshmallow Test. Imagine if the study was extended beyond the second marshmallow. After waiting the required minutes, the child was given a second marshmallow but told, “If you wait a little longer, you will get a third marshmallow!” And a fourth marshmallow . . . a fifth marshmallow . . . a hundredth marshmallow.
By that logic, the ultimate master of delayed gratification would be an old person near death in a room surrounded by thousands of stale uneaten marshmallows. It’s safe to say that none of us would want to be that person when we’re old and dying.
I often strike this cautionary note about the marshmallows with my coaching clients. Sometimes they’re so busy making sacrifices to achieve for the future that they forget to enjoy life now.
My advice to them is my advice to you: There are times when you should eat the marshmallow. Do it today (if only to recover the thrill of instant gratification). Don’t wait for some late-life glimpse-of-mortality event to shake you up.