In 1968 Stanford psychology professor Walter Mischel tempted hungry four-year-olds with a delicious deal. His researchers placed children, one at a time, in a room where they sat alone with a puffy white marshmallow. The children were told that they could either eat the marshmallow right away or they could wait for fifteen minutes – at which point they would be rewarded with a second marshmallow. Then the researcher left the room.
One third of the children gobbled up the marshmallow right away.
One third controlled their appetites for a little while but eventually caved.
One third resisted temptation for the full fifteen minutes and received their reward.
Thirteen years later Mischel did follow-up research that found dramatic differences between the two groups (the gobblers and the resisters). The gobblers, now high school students, were more likely to have behavioral problems and low attention spans, and they found it difficult to maintain friendships. Meanwhile the resisters were thriving. They averaged 210 points higher on their SAT scores than the gobblers. Mischel continued tracking these groups into their late thirties and found that, as adults, the gobblers had more weight problems and were more likely to have had drug problems too.
Mischel’s study points to the need to teach our children self-control, to give them the tools to resist the temptations of consumer culture and the notion that all wants must be immediately satiated. According to Mischel, the daily rituals and activities that go on in the home can be a training ground where we teach our children how to think so they can outsmart desire. Simple things – not snacking before dinner, saving up allowance, not opening gifts until Christmas morning – are actually important exercises in cognitive training that equip children to resist.
When one in two adults are overweight, when obesity has become the number one health risk and when financial meltdowns are caused by the lure of easy credit and the desire for luxurious marshmallowy castles, it is past time to act. We must learn to resist. The marshmallow has been winning for too long.