In the late 1960s, Walter Mischel devised an experiment to test the ability of four-year- old children to delay gratification. Working in a lab at Stanford University, Mischel’s experiment was remarkably simple. A research assistant brought a 4-year-old into a room, in which there was one marshmallow on a plate. After a moment, the researcher explained that she needed to leave the room for 10 to 15 minutes. Before the researcher left, she explained to the child that he/she could go ahead and eat the marshmallow. But if the child waited until she returned, the child could have two fresh marshmallows.
The beauty of this experiment was in the follow-up. Mischel’s team kept track of these children for many years. And here is the pattern of their results: Kids who waited for the marshmallows were more successful at school, had better peer relationships, and were more likely to graduate.
Children who waited 15 minutes had SAT scores on average of 210 points higher than those who chose to eat the one marshmallow right away.
Children who can delay gratification, stay calm, and persist have an amazing advantage in school and in life. With self-regulation skills, children are more likely to persist at learning activities, achieve at higher educational levels, and avoid impulsive decisions that might get them in trouble. The children who couldn’t delay gratification, were found to lack the internal capacity to be calm, focused, and persistent, and, as a result, were less successful in life.
While the importance of self-regulation seems like common sense to most of us, many families do not provide the lessons and behavioral expectations that help to develop self-regulation. And many schools have stepped away from the learning tools that could help develop persistence, resilience and character.
Some researchers have called it grit, while others have called it self-regulation and character. In a 1976 meta-analysis, Bowles and Gintis concluded that strength of character is 3X better at predicting success in college than GPA or SAT scores. Traits relating to postponing satisfaction are the most important ingredients for prudent and reliable decision-making.
While self-regulation and self-sacrifice are unlikely to show up on the standardized tests we use, the development of such characteristics do pay off sooner than later.