June 4, 2009

Delaying Gratification Is Easy If You Don't Try


One marshmallow or two?

The New Yorker has an article about the famous Mischel experiments.

A researcher offers a four year old child a marshmallow.  He is told he could eat one now, or, if he is willing to wait until the researcher returns from running an errand, he can have two marshmallows.

Some children eat the marshmallow as soon as the researcher leaves.  Others can delay for varying amounts of time.  About 30% are able to patiently sit there for up to 15 minutes, holding out for two marshmallows.  How?


Mischel doesn't see this as a test of willpower, but as a test of the cognitive ability to determine what works, and what doesn't, to delay gratification.

Breaking it down, there are two actions in play here: the first is the action of waiting for the man to return.  The second action is not eating the marshmallow.  It is this second action that Mischel thinks is important in succeeding: "strategic allocation of attention."  The best way to avoid eating the marshmallow is to not to think about it.

Kids who can delay gratification have an intuitive understanding of this. So they cover their eyes, sing a song, etc.  The kids who can't delay do/did the wrong thing: they stare at the marshmallow, trying to beat it in a battle of wills.

To emphasize: it is not that some kids have more willpower, but that they have a better ability to think about something else.  More precisely: they have a better ability to know that distraction is what will work.


Mischel describes ways to improve delay, e.g. watching videos of other kids successfully waiting.

"This is where your parents are important," Mischel says. "Have they established rituals that force you to delay on a daily basis? Do they encourage you to wait? And do they make waiting worthwhile?" According to Mischel, even the most mundane routines of childhood--such as not snacking before dinner, or saving up your allowance, or holding out until Christmas morning--are really sly exercises in cognitive training: we're teaching ourselves how to think so that we can outsmart our desires


It occurred to me that a more obvious way of delaying gratification would be to show the kid what the reward is.  Staring at one marshmallow but having to imagine the future reward of two marshmallows perhaps is too abstract for a 4 year old.  Better to make the reward real:  show him one marshmallow and a pair of marshmallows and tell him if he waits he gets the pair.  Show him what he has to look forward to.


I dug up Mischel's papers, and it turns out Mischel did show them both choices (e.g. two cookies vs. five pretzels; one marshmallow vs. a pair of marshmallows, etc) so the reality of the reward was not an issue.

However, I was in for a surprise:

The results were the opposite of those [we researchers] predicted: attention to the rewards consistently and substantially decreased delay time instead of increasing it.  Preschool children waited an average of more than 11 minutes when no rewards were exposed, but they waited less than 6 minutes when any of the rewards were exposed.

Showing them "what they could look forward to" consistently sabotaged them.  Take that, "anything but" virgins waiting for marriage. 

I wasn't the only one fooled; mothers of preschool kids also erroneously predicted that seeing the future reward would be helpful. Reality, apparently, doesn't encourage you towards the future; it's a reminder that you are hungry now.

(So if parents are trying to teach their kids how to delay gratification, then they should be doing it with the temptations/rewards in plain sight, so as to make the training more difficult.)


If seeing the reward makes it harder to wait, what does help?

What helps is seeing an abstraction of the reward.

This would mean seeing a picture of the reward; or thinking about (in the case of marshmallows) clouds, or (in the case of pretzels) long sticks.  This is subtle, but important; doing any of these is even better than completely distracting oneself from the reward. It's almost pornographic; you're entertaining yourself with abstractions of the thing, which is sufficiently interesting to you that you're not actually thinking about the real thing.  (Virgins, start your laptops?)

The longest delay time (almost 17 minutes) occurred when suggested thoughts were also about [non-reward] objects but with regard to their arousing qualities (for example, children waiting for marshmallows who had been cued to think about the salty, crunchy taste of pretzels.)
But it all comes down to distraction.  In order to get the better, but delayed reward of two marshmallows, instead of just the immediate one, don't look at any of the marshmallows.


But then I had another thought: why doesn't the kid just eat all three marshmallows?

Think about this.  The game here is to maximize the reward; the delay is specifically for that purpose, it serves no benefit in itself.  A child looking at this scenario should be able to see  that the choice is really between eating all of them vs. participating in some bizarre nonsense contrived by an adult that always results in getting only some of the marshmallows.  Even a puma knows not to play this game.

Any kid who holds out for two isn't choosing two over one, but two later over all three now-- and that part isn't even conscious.

This means that the marshmallows are not the only motivators.  There is a value to obedience, that exists in four year olds but not in pumas.  This value may be less than the marshmallows, but it isn't negligible, it isn't even small.  In fact, to some it is worth two marshmallows. and fifteen minutes of time.

Evolutionary psychology, economics, and behavior studies in general often fail to account for what may be an innate, or strongly socialized, motivating variable.  "Rational people will seek to maximize their gain."  Sure.  Now define gain.

In many discussions about behavior and economics, we do not account for obedience and social pressure.  This is a mistake, as it is evident that it is a highly significant, though invisible, determinant.


I wish there were a way to ... (Below threshold)

June 4, 2009 12:59 PM | Posted by xon: | Reply

I wish there were a way to make this intelligible to four (and fourteen. . .)-year-olds. I'm seriously considering forcing all my children to read this article. The benefit in total-cost-of-therapy between "my dad was a psycho-pedant who forced me to read a NYT article about psychological research" and "Poor Impulse Control" might just be a net positive. . .

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Sometimes I just want one m... (Below threshold)

June 4, 2009 3:50 PM | Posted by Mark V Wilson: | Reply

Sometimes I just want one marshmallow.

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So Mischel should have list... (Below threshold)

June 4, 2009 10:30 PM | Posted by Dan: | Reply

So Mischel should have listened to Milligram?

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wicked sick, so the real qu... (Below threshold)

June 5, 2009 1:59 AM | Posted by Stan Stammerson: | Reply

wicked sick, so the real question is what happened to all the people with the true puma instincts? I definitely think that obedience to structure or the illusion that the structure of the rules reflects reality somehow are a major problem in society, that people avoid existing by falling back on "(that's not) the way the world works" instead of realizing that "the way the world works" is self defined self trap to avoid taking action that is perceived as risky whether it is or not, and a world full of blind enforcers to effectively make actions risky that otherwise would not be because they believe they know how it works. If the experimenter were smaller I would imagine very different results! People have a fear of numbers and being singled out as the cheater for good reason, because everyone loves a scapegoat to point fingers (or guns at) and no one likes to be one. Somehow accusing someone else absolves the entire group of any crime, that's a tricky one to break. After-all with them out of the picture there will be 3 extra marshmallows to steal! I'm afraid the study isn't representative of corporate sociopaths I would be very interested how results differ for varying age and occupation.

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Everyone seems to be missin... (Below threshold)

June 5, 2009 2:29 AM | Posted by Andrew Ator: | Reply

Everyone seems to be missing the entirely obvious solution that Stan Stammerson gets at, but fumbles in the attempt to explain.

Killing the test administrators, hiding the bodies, creating a compelling murder-suicide story for the newspapers complete with tears and personalized handkerchief might be a lot more work for the test subject, but instead of three (or three more!) marshmellows, the test subject gets the whole bag of marshmellows that the test administrators draw from. In this sense, the puma instinct of action is alive and well. Few people seem to understand how to take this particular path, though.

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Why don't they re-do the ex... (Below threshold)

June 5, 2009 1:00 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

Why don't they re-do the expiriment but this time have the person presenting the marshmellows be a child of the same age taught to do this and the child being expirimented on doesn't know any parents or authority figures are watching? I bet if it was done in this manner the kid with the marshmellows and the rules WOULD get punked and the other kid would eat the whole bag most of the time.

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I read the article and the ... (Below threshold)

June 5, 2009 2:32 PM | Posted by redolence: | Reply

I read the article and the best part was the little boy who broke into the desk when the researchers left the room and ate all the marshmallows. Kid after my own heart.

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As an adult who can't affor... (Below threshold)

June 8, 2009 4:46 AM | Posted by fraise: | Reply

As an adult who can't afford to buy much furniture, it's interesting to read that the researchers found how much abstraction helps, as it definitely jibes with my own experience. I visit home and interior design sites, browse Ikea for ideas once or twice a month, go to local secondhand furniture stores (I live in France so there's some gorgeous stuff) -- and find it immensely easier to buy nothing than when I only went to furniture stores once or twice a year and never looked at furniture online. The secondary benefit is that you get a better idea of what you really want. (Honestly -- I never liked marshmallows, even as a kid. Too sugary and fluffy-mushy. Now, fresh blackberries, on the other hand...)

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oh, come on! do you need th... (Below threshold)

June 8, 2009 6:25 AM | Posted by Trei: | Reply

oh, come on! do you need that badly to destroy every research? call it 'obedience', and you pull the plug on everything.

why not call it a GAME?
what kids do and pumas don't is the value of a game, of playing. this is what kids like more than mashmellows. playing. this is what humans appreciate - more than basic needs fulfillment.

this is NOT a case of being an idiot, yet a case of understanding the rules of the game and accepting to participate. and do I need to remind you that rules are what makes us 'superior' to the jungle?

even implicit, the game has value. just like the kid knows it's only a doll, and yet he/she still gives it tea-parties. it's not because they're stupid, or brainwashed by culture, or adults. it's because games are how they learn stuff.

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Mm I wonder whether ... (Below threshold)

June 10, 2009 6:26 AM | Posted by Mark Tyrrell: | Reply

Mm I wonder whether British politicians are familiar with the marshmallow test or whether they claim for said items as "expenses" via tax payers hard earned marshmallows…I mean money

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I would have eaten all thre... (Below threshold)

June 10, 2009 3:51 PM | Posted by Sulpicia: | Reply

I would have eaten all three marshmellows and felt like a bad girl for about two weeks. And since I like feeling like a bad girl sometimes... I would have enjoyed the marshmellows. Though I have to admit that I would have been pissed that I couldn't roast them. Room-temperature marshmellows aren't even really that good.

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I note that nobody took it ... (Below threshold)

March 30, 2012 3:53 PM | Posted by Gabe Ruth: | Reply

I note that nobody took it where you wanted to go: when a person who thinks that pre-marital sex or pornography (let alone cheating) is wrong violates that belief, they believe that they will lose the reward, or should lose the reward, and this understanding of the nature of things takes hold early. Whether this is true or not is debatable, but this is a provocative experiment.

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I hate it when I crawl into... (Below threshold)

April 16, 2012 8:07 AM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

I hate it when I crawl into bed, fall asleep, and wake up 4 hours later with only one thing on my mind: 2 marshmallows is a lousy reward.
I hate behaviorists, BF Skinner in particular. OK, I’m biased. I think if they want to force people into a demeaning role in the name of Science, they should go first. I like to picture Skinner living in a maze, getting by on only plain water and Velveeta.
But in this case it’s about little kids and marshmallows. I wouldn’t be surprised if the researchers used those teeny-tiny ones that aren’t even good for hot chocolate. But it’s “Science,” which makes everything okay.
Maybe the parents got compensated, but kids are doing all the work, and 2 marshmallows, even big ones, doesn’t cut it. You can’t teach your kids that this is okay- the experiment is bizarre, and the compensation is absurd. In the future, when they start working, they can grapple with those issues.
Have them make a lemonade stand, if they want..

Oh no, don’t tell me: some parents made it into a lesson or a significant event. “You get good things if you have patience!” “What a big helper!” Well whoopeee

I think in the future the kids should get goody bags. Since you can’t be too clear: at least the size of a half- filled lunch bag, with mixed candy, and not from the dollar store, but the good kind.
No cash. Money is not real to kids; it’s barely real to adults.

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I wonder how they set up th... (Below threshold)

April 16, 2012 11:44 AM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

I wonder how they set up the experiment. Did they do it in a natural setting and have the kid’s mother explain about the marshmallows, or did they make the kid have to take a special trip only to be planted in some kind of weird medical environment? And they’re alone and some researcher comes and tells them stupid shit about marshmallows? Because all of the above might influence the outcome. You really don’t want your kid listening to strangers and doing what they say, and I don’t know the age group here, but it doesn’t seem to me that the kid wouldn’t know what s/he is supposed to do no matter how objective the research people or mom tried to phrase it---kids aren’t dumb and they know they’re supposed to wait. Kids get that message all the time. And super, a stranger is giving them candy like it is okay, that’s another problem. Seriously, you would want your kid to be difficult in this position.

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I thought the data presente... (Below threshold)

August 31, 2014 10:33 PM | Posted by Tom: | Reply

I thought the data presented was very interesting and compelling, but the article itself was just bizarre. Where did these references to virgins come from? Does the author know for certain there were three marshmallows present? Wouldn't there just be one additional marshmallow if the child waited? Again, bizarre.

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In response, I'll list my p... (Below threshold)

September 1, 2014 1:45 AM | Posted, in reply to Tom's comment, by johnnycoconut: | Reply

In response, I'll list my points in reverse order:

2.) There was actually a whole bag of marshmallows. That doesn't change much though--instead of "2 extra" think "the whole rest of the bag extra." See the comment by "redolence" above.

1.) At the risk of ruining the joke for you: Chastity is an example of delaying gratification. (He's implying that the hypothetical virgins are resigned to being chaste, whether by free choice or not.)

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(And that ties into the con... (Below threshold)

September 1, 2014 1:50 AM | Posted, in reply to johnnycoconut's comment, by johnnycoconut: | Reply

(And that ties into the conversation about freedom of choice and its limitations.)

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0.) We're all a little biza... (Below threshold)

September 1, 2014 1:57 AM | Posted, in reply to johnnycoconut's comment, by johnnycoconut: | Reply

0.) We're all a little bizarre here. Get used to it.

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