MCHENRY: Delaying gratification and marshmallows

You are sitting with three other kids in an experiment room. A psychologist walks in and hands each of you a marshmallow. You are free to eat the marshmallow in front of you whenever you want. But, the scientist says, wait for 15 minutes, and he will give you an even better reward (hold your breath) — two more marshmallows. Do you wait? Is the future worth it?

These are the terms of the Stanford marshmallow experiment, a series of studies that psychologist Walter Mischel conducted in the 1960s and 1970s on children in preschool. Very few children, it turns out, ate the marshmallow immediately, but of the children who attempted to wait, only about a third lasted long enough to get the extra marshmallows. Almost everyone tried to distract themselves from the spun sugar in front of them: pulling on their own pigtails, or pushing the marshmallow away. One girl reportedly stroked the candy like it was a small, defenseless mammal.

Torturing small children with food is reason enough for most psychological experiments (you can find YouTube videos of people performing the marshmallow experiment on their own kids), but people care about Mischel’s work because of its results. As his subjects grew up, Mischel kept tabs on the children he studied (I imagine this wasn’t creepy at all), and found an overwhelming correlation between those who waited for the reward and success later in life, as measured by SAT scores, BMI and several other factors. The way to get ahead in the world, it seems, is to delay gratification.

I bring all this up because I have a box of leftover Easter peeps hiding somewhere in my dorm room, and because I told myself that, as soon as I finish writing this column, I will find and eat them. I like to reward myself with food, or depending on how much I hate other people, a TV episode or night out. When I was in preschool, I wouldn’t have eaten the marshmallow.

If I had to guess, most Yale students wouldn’t have, either. We know how to delay gratification, whether that means taking a terrible class for a wonderful major or career, or just studying inside on a beautiful day. Most of us, except those who got some visceral thrill from taking AP tests, mastered this skill as early as high school. Back then, wasn’t the logic that it would be worth it later, when you got into Yale?

In Mischel’s experiment, the subjects were shown the other marshmallows before the test began. He had found that children conceptualize a reward most clearly when they can see it in front of them, and when it was something they knew that they would definitely get in the end.

This kind of delayed gratification, when you know the reward is sure to come, is easy to put into practice in everyday life. Your grades, for instance, improve the more you study. Exercise makes you more fit, but only if you sweat. It’s a fair trade-off: Wait 15 minutes with one marshmallow, and then the psychologist gives you two more. Understand the terms, play the game well and win.

But, at some point, the game changes, and the prizes become vague and less guaranteed: love, happiness or a rewarding career; and people — parents or psychologists — stop giving you candy for good behavior (this is probably a good thing). Nobody said that life is a rigorous experiment, and if you want it to be one, you have to figure out the terms for yourself.

Maybe delaying gratification is the best plan; maybe you should just eat the marshmallow. Maybe the universe will someday reward you for studying through spring days and sunshine, for going to every lecture and section, and never getting too drunk; maybe it won’t. There are probably many times when you can get away with eating the marshmallow, and enjoying life, without anyone noticing, but that’s something you have to decide for yourself.

I want to believe in the psychologist’s promise. But I have no idea where the other marshmallows are, how sweet they taste and whether, in the end, they’re worth the wait.

Jackson McHenry is a sophomore in Silliman College. Contact him at jackson.mchenry@yale.edu .

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