The Marshmallow Test

Do you take the marshmallow now … or do you wait for two marshmallows later?

Fifty years ago this month Walter Mischel conducted his fascinating experiment in Stanford University on delayed gratification. What happens when you place a single marshmallow in front of a preschooler and say, “you can have this one now, or you can wait and get two marshmallows in 20 minutes?”

At the time, it was a test of the methods kids used to delay gratification, not actually to measure how well they did it. Although the simple experiment was a one-time deal, years later Mischel went back to survey many of the 600 children who took the test.

Here’s what he found: the longer the kids had waited for their marshmallow, the higher they scored on college admissions years later. The longer they had delayed as five-year olds, the lower their adult body-mass-index, the greater their psychological well-being, the less likely they were to misuse drugs. You can read a great opinion piece about Mischel's research here, and watch a brief interview with him here.

The kids who succeeded did so not because they were unique or special. They succeeded because they found an effective way to distract themselves. They pushed the cookie away, they pretended it wasn’t edible, they sang a song. They found a way to refocus their energy – and that helped them win big later on.

In our federation’s Executive Committee meeting the other night we talked about this exercise. What do we deny today in order to invest in tomorrow? How do we shift from thinking about the ‘now’ to think about the ‘later?’ We’re investing significant resources in our Strategic Plan, in our professional development, and in building capacity for the community. All these are resources from today being used for tomorrow.  In some areas, we're distracting ourselves with fun things – really great young leadership events, Community Challah Bakes, Super Sunday community gatherings – because these help us, in the long-term, build community, and leadership, and Jewish life.

And all of these will hopefully make us a stronger, kinder and more effective community.
Self-control isn’t just for kids.

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