What can a child resisting a candy tell you about success in life?

Walter Mischel is a professor of psychology at Columbia University in New York. In 1960’s, he conducted a now-famous experiment about will power and self-control in children. The experimental set-up was this: a child was invited into a small room by an adult, and was given a tray full of sweet treats to choose from. The child chose a treat, like a cookie or a marshmallow.The adult person would then give a choice to the kid: have 1 marshmallow right away, OR, wait for a few minutes, while the adult is gone outside for a while, and get 2 marshmallows.

Most of the children ate the marshmallow right away. A third of kids, however, were able to hold their ground and wait a little so they could get two candies later. The kids were then checked for academic success and personal life balance several years later, and it was found that children who could delay gratification and wait longer had higher academic scores and were more socially well-adjusted than low-delayers. This ability to delay gratification, and exert will power, has been cited as a fundamental difference between people who are generally more successful in life and are socially well-adjusted and have balanced, healthy relationships, and people, who have less-than-average success in life and have problems in relationships and career and other facets of their lives.

The bottom-line, or take-home message from this experiment is that the crucial skill needed for self-control is “strategic allocation of attention”. Instead of focusing the attention on “X” (put your temptation here), try focusing elsewhere and getting it out of working memory.

Jonah Lehrer, a writer for the New Yorker, wrote a wonderful article regarding the marshmallow experiment and its implications for will power. You can check it out here.

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