February 24, 2010

I’ll Make You a Millionaire

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When you look at a four-year-old, you can’t help but wonder what kind of person they will grow up to be. Do quickly moving hands and a sharp mind foretell a budding con artist or a concert pianist? Is a fussy kid bound to become the type of adult who constantly sends food back at restaurants, scolding the unlucky waiter who forgot to hold the onions? And can parents whose kids learn to read with ease rest assured that their kids will excel, years later, in a college classroom?

Simply put, is there anything about a four-year-old that is stable, persistent and important enough to predict success? For decades, psychologists could only make progress by eliminating possibilities: The answer to success could not be directly correlated with IQ, nor with sociability. (Sorry to those of you Mensa members who scored 140 on your IQ tests, or you socialites who scored an invite to every crush party at Cornell.) In the 1960′s, developmental psychologist Michael Mischel ran a study that is still regarded as groundbreaking — he found the “key” to being successful in life.

Imagine yourself as a four-year-old in the nursery school affiliated with Stanford University. A researcher comes in and offers you a marshmallow. You accept. Then, he offers to make you a deal: If you can wait 15 minutes to eat the first marshmallow, you can have two marshmallows. Would you have waited?

The study wasn’t just about waiting. Mischel’s experiment tested young kids’ ability to understand and employ delayed gratification, or the idea of waiting in order to obtain something you want. Delayed gratification is about acting on what you think rather than just what you want or feel in a moment. It is what your mom referred to when she told you to “control your impulses,” and what you do as you begrudgingly trek to Olin Library to study for your art history prelim instead of meeting your usual crew at the Palms.

In Mischel’s study, about one-third of the kids ate their marshmallows right away. (“Screw my prelim — I’ll see you at the bar.”) Another third waited a little, then popped the marshmallow into their mouths. (“No, I really can’t go out tonight. No, I’m really not going. Okay, I’ll be ready in ten minutes.”) The final third waited the whole time.

The kids who waited had different approaches. Some stroked the marshmallow like it was a small, soft animal. Others pulled on their pigtails, as if they needed to physically relieve some of their tension and frustration. One child licked the table all around the marshmallow until the experimenter finally returned. Yet they all had something in common: They were able to delay gratification. And fourteen years later, those who waited were still better able to delay gratification, not only for the benefit of a second marshmallow, but in pursuit of their goals. They also possessed many qualities we would all like to have: They were more positive, more persistent when they encountered challenges, more educationally successful, more emotionally intelligent and more self-motivated. Forget about what you want to be 15 years from now — think back to the kid you hope you were fifteen years ago.

The four-year-olds who waited fifteen minutes to eat their marshmallow also had SAT scores that were, on average, 210 points higher than the four-year-olds who waited only thirty seconds. And for the kids who couldn’t wait, lower SAT scores represented only the beginning of their issues. In general, they were less decisive, less confident … and still unable to delay gratification! Their parents and teachers also rated them as more stubborn, more prone to envy and more easily frustrated. An article in The New Yorker summed up the findings: The study proved that people who believe that delayed gratification results in better returns lead more positive lives.

If you know, deep down, that there is no chance you would have been able to wait before devouring your marshmallow, don’t panic. Delayed gratification can be learned and enhanced. Psychologists who help people cultivate delayed gratification point to three goals that help control your impulses. First, avoid temptation. In the marshmallow experiment, some of the kids closed their eyes so that the sight of the marshmallow wouldn’t tempt them to eat it. Second, find satisfying alternatives. Remember the kid who licked the table all around the marshmallow? He might have ingested a few table-finishing chemicals, but he had good instinct. Third, focus on the reward. Pet the marshmallow, smell it, do whatever is necessary to remind you how good it will taste and how happy you will feel to have two.

So, whether your goal is making a million dollars or winning a Nobel prize in physics, take a lesson from the marshmallows. Whether you’re a table-licker or a pigtail-puller, figure out your strategy and run with it, because after all, delayed gratification is the key to your success.RLD

Original Author: Emily Weinstein