October 3, 2011

Marshmallow Motivation

In your view is success about aggression, drive and resilience or could it be much more to do with how we handle the soft and fluffy stuff of temptation?

In 1972, Stanford psychology professor Walter Mischel, ran a much-reported experiment. Pre-school children were given 1 marshmallow each, and told they could choose whether to eat it immediately or to wait 15 minutes, when they would get 2 marshmallows.

Surveying the children in later life, the test turns out to predict all sorts of benefits. Those who delayed gratification did better academically, socially and were less stressed.

The test has been replicated many times with the findings holding good.

It has been suggested that this is not just a test of self-control, but of managing instinct with reason and of creative thinking, in that the 1/3 of children who deferred the marshmallow-eating, had skills to distract themselves.

Now at the playark games talks last week, a speaker showed another piece of research involving marshmallows:

Tom Wujec asked different groups to build structures using spaghetti, tape and string with a single marshmallow to be placed on the top.

Amongst the worse performers were groups of business school graduates, hampered by their notion that there must be a single best way to perform the task. They’d forget the marshmallow until last minute, when its weight would often collapse the whole structure.

Amongst the best performers were 6 year-old kindergarten pupils. They repeatedly piloted different approaches to building the structure, keeping the marshmallow firmly in the planning loop and bringing it into the activity frequently. The kids just experimented till something worked.

Both these experiments are about human beings doing stuff – whether distracting themselves or piloting – until the return is right and something works.

Like you I hope, I can think of all sorts of current contexts – economic, educational and environmental – where these insights are relevant.

Here the 2 TED talks from
Joachim de Posada
and ­ Tom Wujec describe the experiments.

Marshmallow may be soft and fluffy stuff – but not without significance.


Join the conversation! 2 Comments

  1. Thanks Martin, and do stop by again some time.

  2. […] connects to the marshmallow thinking of delayed gratification, I’ve written about […]


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