John Cowan - Deferred Gratification

Publish Date
Thursday, 3 March 2016, 2:38PM
By John Cowan

A researcher did a fascinating experiment*. He gave children a marshmallow. He put it in front of them and said they could eat it now if they wanted to. But he said that if they could wait until he returned, without eating the first marshmallow, then they could have two marshmallow s. The researcher then left the room for some minutes. Some kids couldn’t wait – they just hoed straight in – but others patiently waited, drooling probably, but they didn’t touch the sweet. The researcher then returned and rewarded the ones who had waited with an extra marshmallow. The researcher then followed up those kids for years. Now normally I’d be worried about a man who gives kids candy and then follows them… but he made fascinating discovery – the kids who waited and got the extra marshmallow went on to become the most successful in their studies, lower levels of substance abuse, lower likelihood of obesity, better responses to stress, better social skills and generally better scores in a range of other life measures. Now either that second marshmallow must have had some powerful drug in it… or else there is something powerful in learning at a young age that self-control to to put off having something nice now gives you something better later.

Deferred gratification has been called the master life skill.   You defer spending so you can save for something really special; you defer eating lollies now so you can really enjoy your meal later; your defer relaxing now so you can train to win the race. Nearly every worthwhile thing in life comes at the price of deferring gratification. When you say, “No snacks, wait for teatime”, or, “Homework now, then come and join me for a story”, you are teaching them deferred gratification. The trick is to make the delays before gratification short at the start, and the rewards appealing.  “If you do your music practice, then in only twelve years you will have a music degree”. Hmmm… I don’t think that will keep a six-year-old kid interested. But how about, “If you can keep practising until the timer on the stove goes off, I’ll give you a push on the swing.” 

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