Marshmallow Gratification

Walter Mischel and researchers at Stanford University conducted a series of experiments by tempting four-year-olds with marshmallows.  They put a child in a room and placed a single marshmallow in front of him or her.  Then, they told the child that he or she could have the marshmallow right then, but if he or she could wait until the researcher returned, the child would get a second marshmallow.

Some of the pre-schoolers were able to wait for fifteen or twenty minutes for the researcher to return.  To distract themselves from the temptation of the marshmallow, they sang songs, covered their eyes, made up games to play with their hands or feet or even tried to make themselves go to sleep.  The more impulsive children grabbed the single marshmallow almost immediately after the researcher left the room.

In a follow-up study (Shoda, Mischel, & Peake, 1990), the same children were tested at 18 years of age.  The children who had resisted temptation in the experiments were found to be more assertive, self-reliant, trustworthy, eager to learn and academically competent.  They showed consistent ability to delay gratification in pursuit of their goals, control their temper and work under pressure.  They also had SAT scores (a test administered in the U.S. to assess students’ verbal and math skills for college admissions) that were 210 points higher than those who ate the marshmallows while the researchers were away.*

Our ability or inability to delay gratification is a major factor in the likelihood of our success.  Those who can wait patiently and deny themselves what they don’t absolutely have to have today win in the end.  Those who must satisfy every urge as soon as they have it end up exchanging the best for the adequate.  They chase after get-rich-quick schemes and shortcuts to the top, but seldom do they realize their ambitions.  When they finally give in to reality (if they ever do), they find they have to start back at the very beginning and put in the work that will prepare them for reaching their goals.

This is particularly relevant for us in Christian ministry.  God’s timing is never hurried.  His purposes are accomplished according to His schedule, not ours.  When we get God’s vision, our tendency may be to run ahead of Him to accomplish it.  Consider Abraham’s initial approach to becoming the father of many nations or King Saul’s approach to preparing his army to gain victory in battle.  Each had devastating consequences.  Through Hagar, Abraham fathered nations of people who are perpetually at war with the descendants of his son, Isaac.  And by administering the sacrifice himself instead of waiting for Samuel to arrive, King Saul lost his kingdom.

We should be more like David, who refused to raise his hand against God’s anointed even though he had also been anointed to be king over Israel.  For possibly seven years, David was a hunted man, hiding in caves in the wilderness of Ziph, but he waited on the Lord’s timing to ascend to the throne.  Then, he waited another seven years before becoming king of a united Israel.  That’s delayed gratification!

So practice saying, “No,” to yourself today.  The delayed marshmallow is sweeter and worth the wait.

* Impulsive students scored an average of 524 verbal and 528 math.  Non-impulsive students scored 610 verbal and 652 math.  800 is the top score for each part of the test, with a combined potential of 1600.

(S – Yuichi Shoda, W. Mischel, and P.K. Peake, “Predicting Adolescent Cognitive and Social Competence from Preschool Delay of Gratification: Identifying Diagnostic Conditions,” Developmental Psychology 26 (1990), 978-986.)



Filed under Abundance, accountability, character, christianity, Convenience, delayed gratification, Goals, habits, Instant Gratification, parenting, Persistence, Sexual purity, sin, Spiritual Growth

2 responses to “Marshmallow Gratification

  1. That is fascinating research information! If either of my children had been given the marshmallow test, I’m sure my son would have gobbled it up in a second and my daughter would have been resisting it while crying the whole time 🙂 My son never took the SAT’s but my daughter did and her scores were high. Very interesting!



    Hmmm….if my kids took the test at that age, I’m thinking the boys would shame the family name, and my daughter would set a new record for self-deprivation. (I would have eaten the marshmallow – no question.)

  2. Excellent content and style…keep up the good work!


    Thank you!

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