In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s Walter Mischel, then at Stanford University, conducted a behavioral experiment which has come to be known as the “Marshmallow Experiment.” The experiment was designed to test the impulse control of four-year-olds. The children were left alone in a room at a table with a bell and a single marshmallow. The instructions were simple: The experimenter told the children that he was going to leave the room for a little while. If they wanted to eat the marshmallow, they could ring the bell, the experimenter would return, and they could eat the marshmallow. Simple enough. But here’s where it becomes more interesting. If they could refrain from ringing the bell and wait for the experimenter to return on his own (after 20 minutes), they would receive TWO marshmallows.
Around one third (35%) were not successful in waiting for the researcher to return... About 65% of the children were successful in waiting until the experimenter returned and got two marshmallows.
In short, a single observation of behavior at age 4 was a better predictor of SAT scores and delinquency than socioeconomic status, IQ or parental education level combined. The ability to tolerate deferred gratification; the ability to discipline ourselves to a course of action that pays off later rather than instantly, may well be the single most important ability associated with success and happiness in most areas of our life.
The ability to defer gratification may well be the most basic and essential of all the human intelligences, and the one with the most guaranteed practical payoff, without regard to the area of our life we apply it to.
The good news is that it is also among those types of intelligence that can be developed and strengthened...