It pays to wait for the second marshmallow

If you promise a second marshmallow to preschoolers who wait before eating the first, about 30 percent will wait 15 minutes, according to an experiment conducted in the ’60s. The rest can’t control their impulses long enough to get the second marshmallow.  The ability to delay gratification predicts success in high school and later life, reports the New Yorker.

Once (Stanford Psychology Professor Walter) Mischel began analyzing the results, he noticed that low delayers, the children who rang the bell quickly, seemed more likely to have behavioral problems, both in school and at home. They got lower S.A.T. scores. They struggled in stressful situations, often had trouble paying attention, and found it difficult to maintain friendships. The child who could wait fifteen minutes had an S.A.T. score that was, on average, two hundred and ten points higher than that of the kid who could wait only thirty seconds.

Researchers are following up with early and late marshmallow eaters, who are now in their 40s. Some will take MRIs to see if there are differences in the brain.

Researchers also are planning to study whether schoolchildren can be taught self-control skills that will persist when the marshmallows are all gone and children are trying to decide between homework and TV.

The lead researcher, Angela Lee Duckworth, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, was a high-school math teacher frustrated by students with no self-control.  As a psychologist, she “found that the ability to delay gratification— eighth graders were given a choice between a dollar right away or two dollars the following week — was a far better predictor of academic performance than I.Q.”

David Levin, the co-founder of KIPP charter schools, asked Mischel and Duckworth to study KIPP’s program to teach self-control.

Self-control is one of the fundamental “character strengths” emphasized by KIPP — the KIPP academy in Philadelphia, for instance, gives its students a shirt emblazoned with the slogan “Don’t Eat the Marshmallow.”

Duckworth will analyze self-control mastery at KIPP schools, as well as at a private school, a school for gifted children and Mastery Charter Schools, in Philadelphia.

In the short run, students taught mental tricks can lengthen their delay time. But it takes practice to perfect self-discipline. “This is where your parents are important,” Mischel says.

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.

Here’s a gadget — the Study Ball — that forces students to stick to their books.