At 84 years old, Walter Mischel has been known as “the marshmallow man” for the better part of his life. In the late 1960s, he began conducting a series of studies in which children were offered a choice between one treat (such as a marshmallow) right away or two treats if they waited for approximately 15 minutes. The goal of the experiment was to examine whether the children gravitated toward instant gratification or delayed gratification and what that meant for them later on in life.
What were the results? Mischel followed his subjects throughout their lives and found that the ones who had chosen to wait for two treats ended up faring better than those who ate the treat right away: they had higher SAT scores, attained more advanced degrees, were healthier and less prone to substance abuse, and handled stress better.
Would you have waited for two marshmallows?
If you’re anything like me, you’re probably wondering whether your five-year-old self would have waited 15 minutes for two marshmallows. In a recent New York Times piece, writer Pamela Druckerman interviewed Mischel at his summer home in Paris. Now a professor of psychology at Columbia University, he admits in the piece that many of his former subjects have contacted him over the years, asking whether they ate the marshmallow or waited because they can’t remember. But, in all but one instance, he hasn’t told them.
Part of the reason why Mischel doesn’t share that information with his former subjects is because he believes that their choices back then don’t really matter. Yes, the ones who waited for two treats tended to be more successful later in life, but Mischel believes that the self-control those pleasure-delaying kindergarteners exhibited can be learned.
In the New York Times piece, Druckerman explains that, in video recordings of the experiment, the children who waited would do things to distract themselves from the treat in front of them.
“The children who succeed turn their backs on the cookie, push it away, pretend it’s something nonedible like a piece of wood, or invent a song. Instead of staring down the cookie, they transform it into something with less of a throbbing pull on them.”
Mischel says that adults can use similar techniques to strengthen their self-control.
The importance of self-control in college admission
Why did the children who waited for two treats end up doing better academically than the children who didn’t wait? Self-control and avoiding the temptation of instant gratification can affect every aspect of your education, including the college admission process. Have a test coming up? Self-control will help you focus on your textbooks instead of Facebook. Need to get up early for an SAT study session but you’re strongly considering binge-watching your favorite new show on Netflix until 3 a.m.? Avoiding the instant gratification of just one more episode will pay off in spades. Thinking of putting off your application essays until the last minute (“I work better under pressure!”)? Exercising a little will power and working on them over time will produce infinitely better results.
Whatever your own personal “marshmallow” may be—Instagram, video games, shopping, your super-secret LARPing club—finding a way to distract yourself from it and focus on more important matters will help you succeed throughout the college admission process and beyond. Maybe you would’ve been one of the kids who ate their marshmallow right away, but with a little effort, self-control can be learned. Think of it this way: you are not one person, but two—the person you are today, and the person you’ll be tomorrow—and the person you’ll be tomorrow will have to live with the choices you make today.
So what’ll it be: one marshmallow, or two?