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The Marshmallow Myth

New research suggests that delayed gratification is overrated.

© 9nongphoto |
Source: © 9nongphoto |

It's been over half a century since Walter Mischel tempted the tastebuds of hundreds of children in Northern California with a tantalizing marshmallow treat inside his laboratory at Stanford University. In the decades that followed, the children who were able to resist eating a smaller treat right away in exchange for a bigger treat later on ended up being healthier and more successful in school and in life.

The message was clear: delaying gratification is a critical success factor. Thus prompting teachers and parents all across America to sport "Don't Eat the Marshmallow" tee-shirts.

But new evidence suggests that we are missing the point.


In a series of five studies recently published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, researchers Kaitlin Wooley and Ayelet Fishbach at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business found that the experience of immediate rewards—such as enjoying the taste of a healthy food—predicted, more strongly than anticipated rewards did, how persistent people would be in pursuit of their goals to exercise more; study longer; eat healthier; stick with a new year's resolution; or sustain a lifestyle change.

It turns out that long-term desires like making the honor roll, getting a promotion, or fitting into a smaller pair of pants fuel the motivation to set goals in the first place. But after we define that future vision of where we wish to end up, reminding ourselves how badly we want to get there—how much we really want to squeeze into those skinny jeans or earn that raise—does a relatively poor job of keeping us motivated to resist temptation for the weeks or months it will take to achieve the goal.

The Chicago studies found that those who succeed at doing something new are not just those who are better at delaying gratification. Those who succeed are better finding other ways to gratify themselves until they reach that bigger goal.

Instead of simply grinning and bearing the misery of jogging, people who successfully meet their goal of exercising more are the ones who switch to Zumba or find a jogging partner they like talking to everyday.

The grittiest college students aren't those who constantly sacrifice pleasure by imagining the day they'll finally get to become an investment banker. They are the students who focus on the satisfaction they feel every time they accumulate a new piece of knowledge or on the immediate pride they feel each time they crack open a book instead of a beer.

This also explains Teresa Amabile's and Steven Kramer's discovery that the number one predictor of work engagement is a phenomenon they call "the progress principle." At work, we throw ourselves into challenging projects not because our boss blankets us with warm fuzzies or because we think it will add another zero to the east side of our paycheck. More than anything else, people stay engaged in hard work when they feel like they are making progress on a project that matters.

The Chicago studies tell us why. By setting and achieving tiny goals every couple of days, we tap into a constant flow of immediate gratification needed to keep us motivated in pursuit of that distant goal.

In the science of gratification, the cliché holds true: It really is more about enjoying the journey rather than imagining the destination.

Then again, isn't this truly what Walter Mischel found?


The kids in Mischel's studies at Stanford and later in the South Bronx who successfully "passed" the marshmallow test, were the kids who distracted themselves from the mouth-watering sugar puff in front of them.

And how did they distract themselves? They sang a song or played a game inside their heads. What they did not do was sit there and stare at the marshmallow, vainly attempting to tap into deep reservoirs of self-control or personal discipline.

So we have to ask ourselves: Is "delaying gratification" what the successful kids actually did? Or did they merely substitute the source of their gratification—switching their focus from something possibly gratifying in the future (more marshmallows) to something immediately gratifying in the present (singing and playing)?

To say that successful kids and adults "delay gratification" misses the point.

When we focus on "not eating the marshmallow" we imply that successful people are those who are better at sucking it up and enduring the pain and struggle necessary to pursue an expected gain some day, week, or year down the road. Meanwhile, they let all the pleasures of life pass them by.

When we set up the situation this way for our kids, our employees, or ourselves, we are presenting life as a choice between either a) succeed later, but be miserable now, or b) enjoy today even though it means sacrificing your future.

Could this be why so many of us toggle back and forth between feeling guilty one minute about our inability to stick with our goals, and then the very next minute feeling just as guilty about our inability to "be present" and to "live in the now"? No matter which choice you make, you lose.

But that's the exciting thing about the Chicago studies. They show us that this is a false choice.

The secret to success in the marshmallow test of life and work is not about delaying gratification. It is about discovering gratification in every situation. It's about leveraging the unparalleled ability of the human mind to find—and focus on—small sources of gratification in any set of circumstances.

Nick Tasler is a best-selling author, thinker, and organizational psychologist. His new book is Ricochet: What to Do When Change Happens to You.

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