“I’ll Take 2, Thank You”

colored sweets

colored sweets (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While watching debates, thinking about arguments for and against, and all that comes with pre-election media inundation in a presidential election year, I couldn’t help but think about “the marshmallow study.” If you haven’t seen the video popularized with the highly publicized release of Ellen Galinsky’s book “Mind in the Making” take a look now. The video illustrates an important developmental principle: “good things come to those who wait.” Yes, this falls under the heading of “grandma’s rule,” and I can hear the cynics out there saying “duh” under their breath, but the research behind this truism is still, nonetheless, startling and informative.

It all started with Walter Mischel and colleagues, back in the 1970’s, when they executed a clever study. They set preschoolers up in front of 1 marshmallow, and told them something to the effect of:

If you want to eat this now, go ahead. But if you can wait till I [the research assistant] come back, I’ll give you 2.”

Some kids waited, others didn’t. That’s not the interesting part. The interesting part comes much later. The research team checked in with these kids a few times over the next several years (i.e., about 30 give or take), surveying them on a variety of topics. Turns out the children’s ability to delay gratification, as indexed by the marshmallow test, predicted all sorts of things:

  • Sociability in the classroom and on the playground
  • Academic achievement in secondary school and beyond
  • SAT scores (“dealyer’s” scores were on average just over 200 points higher!)
  • Social-emotional adjustment & ability to handle stress
  • Likelihood of abusing drugs
  • BMI

In other words, the kids who could wait 15 minutes to earn a greater prize ended up as happier, healthier adults. The willpower they exerted at age 4 lasted, yielding all kinds of good outcomes.

What’s this got to do with the election?

Well, to my mind anyway, a broad-level analogy pops out. It looks like we, as a country, have shown that we are willing to wait for that second marshmallow. It takes time for change to occur, and it takes a willingness to delay gratification to wait it out. Given the upheaval we Americans have experienced over the last several years (pre-dating the Obama year’s, to be sure), we’ve been waiting a long time for improvements. This election cycle put our collective willpower to the test. Romney’s unwavering grin, tantalizingly simple sound-bites, and promises to fix problems were tempting to many of us. In contrast, Obama’s seriousness, deep discussion of where we stand in terms of fixing issues, and promises-in-progress were sometimes hard to process. Indeed, one marshmallow or two?

Just as an example of this, think about natural resources. Sure, we could use up all the natural resources under our feet here in the US (remember Romney’s quip in one of  the debates?), but what would be gained? Instant gratification today, but at what cost to tomorrow? Other policy matters up for debate could just as easily be put to the marshmallow test. Quick fix or willingness to wait?

The vote last night suggests that a majority of Americans are willing to support an administration that is willing to hold out for two marshmallows. Indeed, despite the rhetoric, Obama’s policies have not been in place for four years. If you recall, inaugurations happen in January, and policy making then slowly picks up speed from there. Once a policy is enacted, it takes even more time for change to emerge.

Yesterday the people spoke and collectively stated that they are willing to wait. Today I am proud to be an American – a sentiment I do not always feel. Today I am hopeful for the future, a sentiment that’s been hard to come by of late. Thank you, America, for holding out for the second marshmallow. Here’s to hoping that good things will come of it.

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About EricaK

As a professor and a parent, I think a lot about education. Turns out that the topics I teach (e.g., cognitive and developmental psychology) inform my thoughts about teaching, and that is what I want to write about here.