Thinking About Giving In?

Chamellow Claudia Meyer

Banish the thought. “Perish the thought?” No. Banish the thought.

What we have learned from the famous “marshmallow experiment,” conducted in the late 1960s at Stanford University using 4-year-old boys and girls, is straightforward:

If we are faced with a temptation that we know we should resist, the best way to resist it is to put the temptation entirely out of our minds.

The marshmallow experiment

One reason the marshmallow experiment comes up in the press now and again is that psychologists continue to explore why some people can delay gratification, while others cannot. But another reason it comes up is the pure “innocence” of the original experiment’s subjects: those sweet children, and only 4 years old.

In the original marshmallow experiments, a researcher led a 4-year-old boy or girl into a small room with a desk and a chair. On the desk was a tray with a choice of treats: a marshmallow, several kinds of cookies, a brownie perhaps.

The researcher would say, “You can have one of these, whichever one you want — which one would you like?” And most of the children would choose the marshmallow, soft, white, sweet.

Then the researcher would say, “I have to go to a meeting in the next room. If you want your marshmallow while I’m gone, you can ring this bell, and I’ll come right in and give it to you. But if you can wait until I return from my meeting, I’ll give you two marshmallows. As a reward for waiting.”

In a 1972 article, Walter Mischel, designer of the experiment, and Ebbe B. Ebbesen write that films made of the children showed them trying to resist the temptation to ask for that first marshmallow “right now.”

The films showed some of the children “covering their eyes with their hands” so they couldn’t see the marshmallow. Others turned around in their chair so they couldn’t see the tray at all. The films showed some children “kicking the table legs” and “pulling on their pigtails” — and one film showed a child “stroking the marshmallow as if it were a tiny stuffed animal.”

And how did the children do? Not very well. In all, some 600 children were run through the experiment. A small number could wait hardly at all, and rang the bell to be given their marshmallow in under 3 minutes.

In all, some 30 percent made it through the entire 15 minutes until the researcher returned, and the children in that group were rewarded with 2 marshmallows. But the rest — two-thirds of the children tested — did not have a way to hold off the temptation of the first marshmallow, and so lost their chance to have a second marshmallow.

We’re plagued all our lives by “adult marshmallows”

Years later, in follow-up studies of the original “marshmallow” children, Walter Mischel found that those who had been able to "delay their gratification” successfully until the researcher returned were, as teenagers, and then as adults in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, living much more successful lives.

The children who could delay their gratification had better grades in school and higher SAT scores; their work histories and careers were more stable; and their incomes were higher. They had fewer divorces, and less trouble with drinking, drugs, and the law.

What made the difference? What enabled 30 percent of the children to delay their gratification, while two-thirds of the children — more than twice as many — could not let their first marshmallow sit for 15 minutes to get a second marshmallow as well?

Prof. Mischel concluded that every child wanted the second marshmallow — and every child started with a strategy of one kind or another to get a second marshmallow. What made the difference, though, was that some children could put the “hot stimulus” of temptation out of their minds. They covered their eyes and kept them covered — or sang songs until the researcher returned — or engaged in some form of play, and kept at it.

Eventually, those who could banish the marshmallows entirely from their thoughts would turn out to be adolescents, and later adults, who could handle a “hot stimulus” issue by turning away from the temptation, then completely putting it out of their minds.

Diet, weight issues are a parade of “hot stimulus” moments. — For many of us, diet and weight challenges are literally “adult marshmallows.” But now imagine turning away from an afternoon snack — and imagine putting that plate of cookies — or brownies — entirely out of your mind! That’s something we can do.

Spending versus saving for retirement. — This is a little different. What is it we want to put out of our minds in this area? Expensive meals? A new smart phone? New car? Maybe in this area we need to set up a regular monthly savings account — where we work, perhaps — and then get used to putting out of mind those discretionary purchases that our new “lower” take-home pay won’t comfortably cover.

Relationships involving romance, sex. — Are these, perchance, the original “hot stimulus” encounters? Nevertheless — if we imagine mustering a kindly but insistent, “No, let’s not do this,” could we not follow up by keeping this person, this relationship, out of our thoughts?

Smoking, drinking, drugs, difficult habits and behavior. — One benefit in putting a difficult addiction out of our thoughts is it may begin to feel like we’re starting to beat it….

Television, computer games, screen time. — Let us turn to some less threatening habits. Whether we — or our children — are spending too much time on television, computer games, social media, or online can be debatable. If we are, are we then to simply “turn it off, walk away and forget it?” Yes.

Outbursts of anger, irritation. — There are times when expressions of anger are justified. But if we define an “outburst” as “out of control,” we want to avoid it. This is a very important “hot issue” or “hot emotion” moment that we and our children must learn to control — and turning away without saying a word may be the only way to do it. Say not one word, then put it out of mind. Later when we’re calmer we can complain, if we still think that’s necessary.