Learning, Self-control and Marshmallows


In the late 1960s and early 1970s research led by psychologist Walter Mischel, then a professor at Stanford University led to one of the most valuable insights into human behaviour and learning.  It showed that children who demonstrated self-control or if you prefer self-discipline went on to gain higher marks in school, had better social and cognitive skills, a greater sense of self awareness and coped with stress far more easily in later life.

In the actual experiment a child was offered a choice between having one marshmallow, pretzels and cookies worked just as well, immediately or two marshmallows if they waited for a short period, approximately 15 minutes. The child was alone as the tester left the room, they returned later to reward those who had not eaten the marshmallow as promised. Those that still had the marshmallow sat in front of them had demonstrated self control.

It became known as the marshmallow experiment and was the inspiration for further research, in particular why was it that some were able to resist but others couldn’t, were some people born with higher levels of willpower and the ability to exert self-control or could it be learned?

Mischel continued his research and published a book in 2014, The Marshmallow Test: Understanding Self-control and How To Master It, which offers some interesting insight into the nature nurture question.

Delayed Gratification

Later research in particular work by Laura Michaelson et al, in 2013 suggested that delaying gratification may also require trust (social trust) in the individuals offering the future rewards. Michaelson identified that if the children didn’t think they would get a second marshmallow, they would most likely eat the first one. In effect if you don’t believe the person is trustworthy, then even those with “will power” will give in.

This has a significant implication in so much that the ability to delay cannot be hard wired, it is environmental, influenced to some extent by what you believe. There has also been the suggestion that it is logical to eat the first marshmallow, especially if you have grown up in an environment where resource is scarce.

This leads us to the conclusion that there are two potentially important factors at play, firstly self-control and secondly established beliefs.

The ability to discipline yourself to delay gratification in the short term in order to enjoy greater rewards in the long term, is the indispensable prerequisite for success. Brian Tracy

Implications for Learning

Fundamentally delayed gratification is about the belief that short-term pain or at least a little discomfort today will lead to rewards in the future. And that is an important component of learning, yes of course learning should be interesting and enjoyable but there will come a point when it is not. This is especially true when taking examinations, even if you enjoy the subject, sitting a test or exam that you might fail can be stressful and for most is far from a pleasant experience. Learning also requires that you make sacrifices in terms of what you give up, for example not meeting with friends, studying on bank holidays, and generally missing out.

The good news is that as Walter Mischel and others discovered you can improve your self-control by using a few simple techniques.

  • Remove the distraction – if the marshmallow had been taken out of sight, the temptation to eat it would be left to your imagination. The student’s marshmallow is most likely to be a mobile phone, so how about you remove it, not for ever of course that would be unreasonable, just for a couple of hours. An alternative is to distract yourself, rather than thinking about what your giving up, do something else, watch a video on the topic, produce a mind map etc.
  • Have a routine – develop a routine or habit for example, always study for two hours after you get home.
  • Reframe – if you thought that the marshmallow was bitter, the temptation to eat it would go away. It is possible to reframe the distraction as a negative, for example  that mobile phone ringing is someone I really don’t want to speak to….
  • Reward yourself – when you have studied for 2 hours, give yourself a reward, anything you like, a new car might be over the top, but you deserve something.
  • Set goals – perhaps obvious, but if you have a goal not to eat the marshmallow for 15 minutes, then 1 hour, eventually you will be able to resist for days.

The world in which we live seems to be changing, as organisations attempt to satisfy the continual demands of those with a “want it now” mentality.  Having what you want, when you want may seem ideal but those that have enjoyed instant gratification have not always found it a good place to be.

Listen to the man himself talk about delayed gratification and the marshmallow experiment, it’s just 4 minutes.  –  Walter Mischel.