Loyal readers will remember my last post, in which I shared the marshmallow story. The key takeaway: self-control is a big deal. For those who might have missed it here’s a quick recap: By tempting a child with a treat placed in front of her, while promising that if she could wait fifteen minutes she could have two, Walter Mischel measured young children’s ability to delay gratification.
While most were only able to hold out less than three minutes, about thirty per cent waited—and got a second treat. The most interesting part of the study came years later when Mischel learned that those who were able to wait were also more successful academically, socially, and professionally. On average, kids who waited fifteen minutes for the second marshmallow had S.A.T. scores two hundred and ten points higher than those who lasted only thirty seconds.
The lesson from all this is that, despite our fast-food culture, good things do come to those who can wait. People who are able to delay gratification end up being more successful, less stressed, and generally much happier than those unable to control their impulses.
All very fascinating–but what to do about it? If we now know that ability to delay gratification is more important than IQ or talent, the next question should be: is this a teachable skill?
The short answer is, yes. Doing so, however, requires a closer look at what we’re actually dealing with—because it’s probably not what you think.
“What we’re really measuring with the marshmallows isn’t will power or self-control,” Mischel says. “It’s much more important than that. This task forces kids to find a way to make the situation work for them. They want the second marshmallow, but how can they get it? We can’t control the world, but we can control how we think about it.”
Originally, scientists thought there was a simple link between a child’s ability to wait and how much they wanted the reward. Not true. Every child longed for the extra marshmallow. Further research revealed the key: a make-or-break skill called, “strategic allocation of attention.”
Children successful at resisting temptation do not overcome their desire. They simply distract themselves from it. They sing songs from Sesame Street and pretend to play hide and seek or other solitary and imaginary games. “If you’re thinking about the marshmallow and how delicious it is, then you’re going to eat it,” Mischel says. “The key is to avoid thinking about it in the first place. What’s interesting about four-year-olds is that they’re just figuring out the rules of thinking. The kids who couldn’t delay would often have the rules backwards. They would think that the best way to resist the marshmallow is to stare right at it, to keep a close eye on the goal. But that’s a terrible idea.”
Turns out, resisting temptation isn’t about “resisting” at all. It’s about distracting. It’s about understanding how to control, not things, but thoughts. When adults talk about this skill, we call it meta-cognition: the ability to recognize and, to some extent, control our own thoughts and feelings. In this sense, success is a mind game. And it’s an inside job.
“If you can deal with hot emotions, then you can study for the S.A.T. instead of watching television,” Mischel says. “And you can save more money for retirement. It’s not just about marshmallows.”
But aren’t some people just naturally better at this than others? Does this have anything to do with genetics?
After being taught some simple thinking strategies—like imagining the treat to be just a picture—kids who hadn’t been able to wait sixty seconds could now resist temptation for the entire fifteen minutes.
“Once you realize that will power is just a matter of learning how to control your attention and thoughts, you can really begin to increase it,” Mischel says.
Today’s media and culture is teaching our kids that patience is no longer virtuous. Now, not only do you you know differently—you can teach them why and give them a set of lifelong skills and values guaranteed to make a real difference.
Of course, ironically, the sooner we do this, the better.
Founder of WeTeachWeLearn.org, Chris Wondra is just another Wisconsin public school teacher. Email Chris at: firstname.lastname@example.org .