In the early 1970s, Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel conducted a series of uniquely simple studies on deferred gratification where, after winning in a simple quiz, 4 year-olds were given the choice of prizes: they could have one marshmallow then, or two marshmallows if they could wait a short period of time while the experimenter left the room. Making it more difficult for the children, the experimenter left them alone in the room for 10 to 15 minutes with the first marshmallow temptingly on the plate before them.
Some waited while others ate it
Of course, the children wanted two marshmallows, but only some of them could hold out while many of the others gave into temptation and ate the first marshmallow. Children that ate the first marshmallow are considered present hedonist, while those who waited are thought to be future-oriented. Phil Zimbardo repeated this experiment recently with similar results (HYPERLINK “results” to this YouTube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7_waarFnPOg).
Competence and temptation
Years later, as 18 year-olds, the children that were deemed future-oriented were described by their parents as more competent than their present hedonist peers. The future-oriented kids also scored 250 points higher on the SAT, went further in higher education, were better at saving money, had healthier body weights, were less likely to take illegal drugs, worked better under pressure, and had better social skills. A 2011 brain imaging study of a sample from Mischel’s original Stanford participants (now middle-aged) revealed that when attempting to control their response to temptation, those with higher delay times had more active prefrontal cortexes, and those with lower delay times had more active ventral straitums, an area of the brain correlated to addictions.
Changing time perspectives
Those findings are pretty profound indicators of success. So does eating a marshmallow as a 4-year-old mean you’re destined for less success as an adult? Not necessarily. As we have discovered through research on time perspective, and also in our own clinical psychology practice, you can adjust your own time perspective in a variety of ways:
1. Increase your past positive memories by focusing on what you’ve done well in the past and the times when you were successful or received a compliment from someone about something you did. Think of examples from work, from playing sports, cooking a meal, or even when you helped a stranger or fixed something around the house.
2. Lessen your negative present hedonist tendencies by assessing your pitfalls: What triggers you to act impulsively? What is your Achilles heel- - what are better alternatives to this activity? Think through the future consequences of this immediate pleasurable experience? What are a few positive things that would make you more excited about your future?
3. Eliminate your present fatalist thoughts by acknowledging that nothing is set in stone and you have the ability to choose what you do on a daily basis. Though you may have always done things in a certain way that doesn’t mean you have to always do them that way. Be more confident that your wise actions can begin to change aspects of your life situation in desirable ways.
4. Bump up your future-orientation through goal-setting and choosing constructive present hedonist activities. Take your answers from the present hedonist section and turn those into future-oriented aspirations. What can you do now to create a better future? If you are oriented more towards present hedonism, create realistic rewards for yourself when you achieve your goals to help keep you motivated and give yourself something to work towards.
5. Parents: make sure your child has a positive male role-model present in their life. Another finding Mischel made in some of his earliest observations was that an absence of the father showed the strongest link to delaying gratification, where children from intact families showed a much higher ability to delay. If Dad is busy or travels a lot, make sure your son or daughter has plenty of time with a male relative or is a member of a youth organization like the boy or girl scouts, or Y clubs.
Giving your child more responsibilities will also show them that working hard is beneficial to them and can be satisfying as well as fun. Basic tasks like mowing the lawn, doing the dishes, cleaning their room, helping out in the community through volunteering, reading non-required books, and earning the right to play video games are all great ways to do this. Create a savings account for your child and make them save half of what they earn from chores.
Try this at home
Maybe you should also play the Marshmallow Game with your children, starting when they are three, and then annually. The ability to delay increases with developmental age and proper socialization. Learning to resist temptation and delaying immediate gratification for better long-term future gains is one of the most important life lessons we can and should teach our children and students.
Take the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory at www.thetimeparadox.com to discover your personal time perspective.
Visit our website, "http://www.timecure.com/" \t "_blank" www.timecure.com, to view a free 20 minute video - The River of Time; you’ll learn self-soothing techniques as well as how to let go of past negatives, work towards a brighter future, and live in a more compassionate present.
See The Time Cure: Overcoming PTSD with the New Psychology of Time Perspective "http://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/psychotherapy" \o "Psychology Today looks at Psychotherapy" Therapy (Zimbardo, Sword & Sword, 2012, Wiley Publishing); for strategies to reduce stress and improve communication, visit "http://www.timecure.com/" \o "www.timecure.com" \t "_blank" www.timecure.com and "http://www.lifehut.com/" \o "www.lifehut.com" \t "_blank" www.lifehut.com.
Photos: googleimages.com and dreamstime.com