Response or Reaction: Marshmallows, One or Two

ResponseReactIn the 1960s and 1970s Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel conducted an experiment that captured the imagination of those searching for ways to empower children against the temptations of the false self, against the dead-end pursuit of plenty, pleasure and power. However, Mischel or anyone else would not have expressed this as the goal of his study of human behavior.

The results of Mischel’s captivating experiment are being revisited (as of January 2014) in David Brooks piece in The New York Times entitled “Marshmallows and Public Policy;” “Don’t! The Secret of Self Control” by Jonah Lerner in The New Yorker; “Just Let Them Eat the Marshmallow” by Po Bronson in The Daily Beast; and “Marshmallow Test—How Resisting a Sweet Can Lead to a Better Life” by Rebecca Camber in The Daily Mail among many others. Now that we have piqued your curiosity—what are these pundits excited about—what is The Marshmallow Test?

Mischel’s “test subjects” were 635 4-year-old pre-school students at the Bing Nursery School on the Stanford campus. For follow-up studies in the 1980s Mischel and his colleagues were able to track down 185 of the original children. Today Mischel, now a professor at Columbia, has studied the brain activity of a small number of the original test subjects (now in their 40s) which show differing brain activity in those who were able to delay gratification and those who weren’t. What do phrases like “delay gratification” mean? Good question.

Did we overstate in the previous essay the importance of discipline and self-restraint in creating a sustainable global village, or in the process of transformation, or in transcending pain and suffering? You be the judge because it is your life’s experience that you are choosing each and every day.

To create the context, let’s go back to the original experiment. In Mischel’s original study a researcher placed two marshmallows on the desk of each preschooler. They were told by the researcher that she had to leave the room for 15 or 20 minutes. They were also told that they could eat one marshmallow before she returned (but only one) or they could wait (exercising self-control) and eat both if they waited until she returned.

Students of Simple Reality will recognize the appearance of the temptation to “react” or, resisting a conditioned trigger of the false-self sensation energy center and with a higher goal in mind, retain control of their emotions and “respond.” Mischel nor his colleagues (either then or today) probably don’t understand how profound the implications are of the results of what turned out to be (although not originally intended as such) a long-term study.

Daniel Goleman will help deepen our understanding of the significance of the behavior of the subjects in the experiment which he described in his book Emotional Intelligence. “There is perhaps no psychological skill more fundamental than resisting impulse. It is the root of all emotional self-control [and by extension, self-reliance], since all emotions, by their very nature, lead to one or another impulse to act [a reaction]. The root meaning of the word emotion, remember, is ‘to move’ … the marshmallow challenge … shows how fundamental is the ability to restrain the emotions [to respond or do nothing] and so delay impulse.”

What does this simple experiment involving marshmallows have to with building a healthier community over time? The worldview of the two groups of students was not the same nor was their identity. When they were revisited as adolescents the differences between the two groups had dramatic consequences.

“Those who had resisted temptation at four were now, as adolescents, more socially competent: personally effective, self-assertive, and better able to cope with the frustrations of life. They were less likely to go to pieces, freeze, or regress under stress, or become rattled and disorganized when pressured; and they embraced challenges and pursued them instead of giving up even in the face of difficulties; they were self-reliant [Emerson would be pleased to hear this] and confident, trustworthy and dependable; and they took initiative and plunged into projects. And, more than a decade later, they were still able to delay gratification in pursuit of their goals.”

Those who had not waited and settled for one marshmallow had markedly different behavior than their more disciplined classmates as adolescents. “In adolescence they were more likely to be seen as shying away from social contacts; to be stubborn and indecisive; to be easily upset by frustrations; to think of themselves as ‘bad’ or unworthy; to regress or become immobilized by stress; to be mistrustful and resentful about not ‘getting enough;’ to be prone to jealousy and envy; to overreact to irritations with a sharp temper, so provoking arguments and fights. And, after all those years, they were still unable to put off gratification.”

I know, I know this all sound too good to be true. Surely we cannot train our children to have healthier behavior by simply teaching them about discipline and delayed gratification.  (See The Point of Power Practice in the Simple Reality Project books.)  But what makes a thing true in a given story or society? The truth is what we believe to be true and our belief in it gives it value and power to shape human behavior. We choose the components of our paradigm, our narrative; we decide what our beliefs, attitudes and values are going to be and weave them into a story about our community.

Could we teach our children the beliefs, attitudes and values that would empower them to consciously choose a response over a reaction and the specific skills and benefits related to delayed gratification? Of course we can, but we have chosen not to do that in our schools. This is not a good choice, not a mindful choice.

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References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in the Simple Reality books:
Where Am I? Story – The First Great Question
Who Am I? Identity – The Second Great Question
Why Am I Here? Behavior – The Third Great Question
Science & Philosophy: The Failure of Reason in the Human Community

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