Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Marshmallow Study

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We live in a world of instant gratification and convenience. Fast food. Email. Text messages. Twitter. Grab the remote and fast forward. With the right television package we can have over 400+ channels.

Thanks to technology no one has to endure anything. Our world is filled with immediate answers and instant relief.

What does this mean for our children?

It means they can’t wait. It means they want it all. Now.

According to Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, the inability to delay gratification is a big deal. “There is a perhaps no psychological skill more fundamental than resisting impulse. It is the root of all emotional self-control, since all emotions, by their very nature, lead to one or another impulse to act.”

Delayed gratification or the ability to allow reason to rule over impulse is but one indicator of EQ.
Emotional intelligence (EQ) equates to emotional maturity and social adeptness and turns out to be predictive of success later in life.

It only took two marshmallows to foretell which children would have a better life experience in a Stanford University experiment where a researcher asked four-year-old children to make a choice. The child could have a marshmallow immediately, or could wait approximately fifteen to twenty minutes and get two marshmallows.
After explaining how everything worked, the researcher left the child with one marshmallow.

About one-third of the children couldn’t wait. The minute the door closed the “grabbers” ate the marshmallow. The remaining two-thirds had staying power. Each child used different strategies, but all who waited did so by distracting themselves. Some covered their eyes. Others sang songs, talked to themselves or played hand games. A few even tried sleeping.

The researchers checked up the children when they reached high school. Turned out the ability to wait for two marshmallows translated into important things. Surveys filled out by parents and teachers found the grabbers tended to be lonely, stubborn, envious and easily frustrated. Typically the grabbers didn’t do well under stress and had a tendency to avoid challenges.

In contrast, the “delayers” reportedly coped better than their grabbing peers and ended up being more socially competent, dependable, responsible and self-assured. The differences also showed up in test scores, with grabbers scoring more than 200 points below delayers on the SAT.

Now imagine your child faced with the same situation. What do you think he or she would do at the age of four?

Even if you think your child would have been a grabber, there is good news. Proponents tell us EQ can be changed or, better yet, enhanced.

Last week I talked to teenagers at a local technology center about this subject. Each student had taken an EQ test. The students’ scores graded EQ components like self-esteem, interpersonal skills, stress management, drive/motivation, and decision-making. As might be expected, some students were better prepared to handle stressful situations while others scored higher on empathy or decision making. Yes, there were even a few who had grabber issues.

I had been asked to help them understand change was possible—that they could improve their emotional maturity. Whether or not they do will be up to the individuals. Do they want more control or better social skills? It will take their desires and efforts to make a difference in their own lives.

The exciting news is that they can.

Difficulty in delaying gratification isn’t just a child’s problem…it’s reflected in adults’ fiances, diets, and relationships. Marshmallows aren’t required to teach your children—the best learning experience you can give them is to teach by example.

Allyn Evans
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