In a famous psychology experiment in the 60s, Walter Mischel tested children on their ability to defer gratification.   The kids were offered a marshmallow, or if they waited to eat it, they were promised two marshmallows.

The idea was to find out if four year-olds could defer gratification.  Three year-olds cannot.  Apparently at four, for some of us, we develop mental controls and strategies to help us defer gratification to be able to get more later.

So some of the children could defer gratification, end of experiment.  Not so fast.

Mischel, decided to follow these children along and found out that those who were most successful at deferring gratification at four also did better at school, had higher grades, got better test scores, which got them into better schools and so forth.

All correlated highly to whether they could resist the marshmallow longer when they were four.

Seem farfetched?  It is not.  The results have been correlated and seem to link to activity in particular brain areas that provide self discipline and self control expectations.

Mischel also found that he could affect a small change in this deferred gratification ability through coaching and providing some techniques to help the four year-olds exercise greater control of themselves.

On the other hand, everything in our society today seems oriented to urge people to seek immediate gratification.  The recent mortgage crisis in the United States is a good example of a population not capable or willing to defer gratification.  Add the Greeks to those who want to live today and pay for it tomorrow.

Many marketing techniques put a lot of emphasis on “Act Now!” and demonstrate strong benefits available for instant gratification.  This may be a suicidal feature of capitalism unbound.

Even products/services, like weight loss, emphasize the end result without dwelling too much on how long it took to get there.  Most people would rather undergo surgery for weight loss or take a rapid loss pill than go through the longer term behaviour modification required to change their eating habits.

We will never advertise with a “Wait until you can afford it!” message.  So, educators should prepare people for a life where they have to resist the desire to want, want, want and learn to manage their desires after they are four years old.  Don’t blame the advertisers who are offering the marshmallows if you are acting like a three year-old.

Check these later posts as well:  Failing the Marshmallow Test and Playing for the Second Marshmallow

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