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Do Your Decision-Making Skills Pass The Marshmallow Test?

Early in the 1970s, Walter Mischel conducted one of the most important psychological experiments of our time, helping us understand how human beings deal with situations in which our logical-selves and our emotional-selves disagree about what to do. As it turns out, 4 year olds can tell us a lot about how we can overcome temptation to achieve the outcome that is in our best long-term interest.

The experiment had three parts. First, children age 4 were brought individually into a room and were asked if they liked marshmallows. The answer was a resounding yes.

Second, each child was presented with a choice: You can have one marshmallow now, or wait a few minutes and have two marshmallows. Almost every child said that he or she would wait to receive the extra sweets.

The third part of the experiment was a bit cruel. The children had marshmallows placed on the table in front of them and were told this by the proctor: I am leaving the room to go to a store; you can eat the marshmallow. However, if it is still there when I get back, you can eat it and have a second one.

As soon as the Proctor left the room, the agony began. The kids were torn about what to do. Very few could make it the full 15 minutes without reaching across the table and eating the marshmallow. Many couldn’t make it one minute. But a few passed the test, and they enjoyed the pleasure of eating a second marshmallow.

When Mischel followed up on his experiment a decade and a half later, he discovered something striking. The children who could avoid the sugary temptation, as a group, had fewer behavioral problems as teenagers, received better grades, were less likely to do drugs, and scored higher on their SATs, than those children who could not.

Why was this the case? Why was this test a better predictor of future success than their IQ score? (which it was)

We think the answer is because life is constantly presenting us with marshmallow tests.  Often we face tough decisions because of a time imbalance—one option has immediate rewards, while the other offers more abstract & uncertain rewards sometime in the future.  We live in the here and now, and we feel pleasure & pain in the present as well. It is very hard for us to pass up the immediate gratification of the sure thing in favor of an abstraction that might not pan out.

However, those who understand this bias and, therefore, can better navigate tradeoffs involving varying time periods have a big advantage in the game of life. This is because we are constantly bombarded by temptations, and it is up to us individually to make choices that are in our own long-term best interest. No one can be the arbiter of your future except for you.

Now, it should be said that our emotions and inclinations—when used correctly—are powerful tools in our decision-making arsenal. They are particularly helpful in guiding us in areas in which we already have plenty of experience, areas where we can be confident in trusting our instincts (the tennis player doesn’t have to ‘think’ about hitting the tennis ball). David Brooks and Jonah Lehrer among others have recently written books that defend the use of emotional decision-making in certain circumstances.

But there are times when our initial inclinations let us down. In the past, human beings were much more focused on immediate needs: food, shelter, warmth, reproduction, and safety. Addressing these needs deeply involves the senses. The associated feelings experienced needed to be strong because they were what motivated humans to survive in the face of adversity.

Thankfully, the vast majority of humans today have additional goals beyond just making it to tomorrow. Most of us now are trying to live a good life, and it is fairly clear that following our whims alone will not get us there. Our whims tell us to sleep in, to take a YouTube break, and to yell at someone when they do something stupid. Yet we get up when the alarm goes off, we stay on task when we need to meet a deadline, and we often bite our tongue in the face of stupidity. We do this because we know that a life that follows exclusively its own immediate wants and needs does not get us to where we want to go.

The fact of the matter is that careers are built on the concept of delayed gratification; navigating temptations now in order to have success—and opportunities at even more success—in the future. And this framework works. People are ultimately happier when they can point to enduring accomplishments, as well as stay excited about what is yet to come.

Everyone gets this to a certain extent, yet some are better at navigating the daily trade-offs than others. Some can wait to get the second marshmallow, while others can’t help themselves, gobbling up only the first. It would be easy to say that some kids simply have more addictive personalities, while others are just more rational. But the real insight of the marshmallow test—the reason why it is so valuable to you and me—is that every child—not just the children who couldn’t last 15 minutes—felt the same temptation to chow down.  It was clear from the experiment that they all experienced the same impulse, yet some were able to resist while others couldn’t.

Why? Some kids stared directly at marshmallow. As they stared, taste and pleasure related neurons began to fire in their brains. The longer they stared, the more intense the feelings became, until the point where these impulses completely overshadowed logical thought.

But other kids did something else. They closed their eyes, looked away, or distracted themselves with another activity. They avoided putting themselves in the position to be tempted. They didn’t have any innate powers; they just came up with strategies to compensate for their shortcomings.

Here we can learn much from these four year olds. Often we are presented with situations in which we know what the right answer is; we know the choice we should make. Yet it is still hard to make because we are human and are prone to getting sidetracked. It’s important not to become fixated on what we are denying ourselves. Rather, we should distract ourselves, change the subject in our own minds, or establish short-term rewards as we take steps towards our long-term goals.

Just for fun:

Last week we read an article from the Nudge blog challenging the reader to think about if he or she would have passed the marshmallow test. They presented a modern day equivalent: the Hulu movie streaming service and the user’s choice regarding when to watch the commercials. This got us thinking about other tradeoffs we make in our daily lives. Here are some we came up with:

  1. Do you eat the cookie doe? It’s so delicious, yet despite what Rocky says, raw eggs aren’t good for you. You should probably just wait and get the extra cookies.
  2. Do you hit “ask me later” or “remind me later” over 20 times in a row when you receive a computer prompt? They are annoying, and we know you have to check your email for the 12th time today, but go ahead and either download it, sign up, or cancel. Save yourself another 100 clicks.
  3. Do you floss every day? With brushing, the benefits are immediate—no one wants to
    go to bed with a gross mouth. With flossing, on the other hand, there is much
    less of an immediate reward for the time put in.  However, it is still critical to your long-term
    health, as Sangay Gupta will tell you.
  4. Do you think about your hangover the next day when you are deciding how much to drink? Getting a hangover comes hand in hand with the short-term benefits of alcohol consumption. If you view them as two separate events—I hate to say it—but you probably would have gone to town on the marshmallow.
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