Would You Pass the Marshmallow Test? The Importance of Delayed Gratification

Have you ever heard of the marshmallow test that focuses on delayed gratification?

One morning, while driving to work, I was struck with the urge to stop to buy a treat on the way, even though I had already packed food for the day. I remembered that I would be sabotaging what I want most in the future for what I craved in the present moment. My higher self wanted to save money and not spend it on excess calories, but Ed (my lizzard brain) wanted a slab of dark chocolate to enjoy while going through my emails.

While I was in the car, faced with a hard decision, I remembered the marshmallow test and yelled out to myself: “Marshmallow!

I think this should be my new safe word for when I want to pick instant gratification over my future goals.

What Is The Marshmallow Experiment?

The marshmallow test is an experiment conducted by Walter Mischel in the late ‘60s[1], where researchers put kids alone in a room and gave them a marshmallow each. As part of the experiment, the kids were told that if they did not eat the marshmallow, they could get another marshmallow in 20 minutes. 

What Were The Results of The Marshmallow Experiment?

Researchers saw that the kids who did not eat their marshmallows during the test would distract themselves by not looking at the marshmallow and looking elsewhere like at their hands or at the wall.

When researchers followed up with the kids years later, they saw that the kids who were able to wait for the second marshmallow during the experiment were generally more successful later in life, although they did not take other aspects into account, such as cognitive strength, family upbringing, economic situation, or early aptitude.[2]

In 2018, a study was published where researchers ran the experiment again but took these things into account[3]. The researchers also did the experiment on ten times as many people, and they found that the correlation between delayed gratification and success later in life was much smaller than originally thought, but that is not why I love this experiment. 

Why I Love The Marshmallow Experiment

I love it because it focuses on delayed gratification, which I believe is an important skill to be able to practise. I want to become the kid who can wait for the second marshmallow during the experiment.

Growing up, whenever my parents would buy my sisters and I candy, I would usually finish mine within the hour, and my younger sister would do the same. On the other hand, my older sister would put her candy in her perfectly organised, colour-coordinated cupboard and make it last for about a week or sometimes even longer. She is a pro at delayed gratification.

Just knowing it was there would bother me. I never took any of her candy, but man did the thought cross my mind a lot. I am the kid who would totally fail the marshmallow experiment.

Would you eat the marshmallow? Would you pass the test? 

Why Do We Want Instant Gratification?

The marshmallow experiment can show if you struggle with delayed gratification. I know I would have eaten the marshmallow during the experiment, and you probably already know if you would too.

That is because a lot of us struggle to comprehend what the future will be like. We struggle with delayed gratification, which is partly because the future seems so far away. We eat junk food, but we do not consider what it will do to our bodies in the future. I have heard so many people say that they will eat what they want even if they die earlier because they want to enjoy life and their food. That is why I am so passionate about showing people that you can enjoy life and your food while still taking care of your health.

I still struggle with instant gratification and waiting for my food at times, but that’s okay. I am able to resist the marshmallow at least half of the time I’m tempted and tested.

Fortunately, I have a new safe word, which I can use whenever the urge to eat my food way too early strikes.

Why Is Delayed Gratification Good?

If you can learn to become good at delaying gratification, you can expect a lot of benefits, such as:

  • You have a reduced risk of fat gain and obesity.
  • You will have better self-esteem because you won’t feel guilty for doing things that take you further away from your goals because you wanted satisfaction in the moment.
  • Self control will become easier and easier as you practise delayed gratification, which will help you achieve your goals.
  • You learn to make decisions based on how it will affect your future self in a few months or years and not your current self.
  • You become more comfortable with dissatisfaction, which will help you push through for longer when doing boring and hard tasks like studying, working out, putting together a presentation, running a race, or writing a book.
  • You learn to control your impulses a lot better.

How to Practise Delayed Gratification

To practise delayed gratification, whenever a craving hits, try to wait ten minutes. It is still perfectly okay to eat something when you start craving it if that is what you truly want, but if you actually want to give in to your cravings less often and practise delayed gratification, waiting for a few minutes and then seeing if you still want it is a good strategy. Tell yourself that you are allowed to eat it after a few minutes, and do not feel bad if you do. This is about food freedom in the long run after all.

Even if you just wait five minutes before you eat the chocolate when you would usually eat it immediately can be a huge win in the beginning.

Also remind yourself of what your big goals for the future are and why giving into temptation will take you further away from what you want most. Remind yourself why this instant gratification is self-sabotage.

Would you pass the marshmallow test? If not, I think practising delayed gratification should become one of your goals if you frequently self-sabotage your goals by opting for instant gratification instead. 

[1] Cognitive and attentional mechanisms in delay of gratification. Mischel W, Ebbesen EB, Zeiss AR. J Pers Soc Psychol. 1972 Feb;21(2):204-18. 

[2] Mischel W, Ayduk O, Berman MG, et al. ‘Willpower’ over the life span: decomposing self-regulation. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2011;6(2):252–256. doi:10.1093/scan/nsq081

[3] Watts TW, Duncan GJ, Quan H. Revisiting the Marshmallow Test: A Conceptual Replication Investigating Links Between Early Delay of Gratification and Later Outcomes. Psychol Sci. 2018;29(7):1159–1177. doi:10.1177/0956797618761661


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