The marshmallow test

Posted on April 18, 2009

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Yesterday I taught a class, as I do regularly, to a group of students getting ready to graduate from a career training program. My portion of their transition is a two and a half hour class on financial wisdom designed specifically for kids who have endured poverty, considering the things it has taught them, and the things it has not. I start the class with an experiment that I heard the keynote speaker describe at a conference I attended last fall on poverty alleviation. It has been so incredibly useful.

The original test was given 40 years ago by a Stanford psychologist who was evaluating the effects of an ability to delay gratification. Versions of the test repeated over the decades since have validated and added to the data, with the conclusion solidly established that the ability to sacrifice in the present for a greater future goal is twice as predictive of student success as IQ. That’s an interesting correlation, isn’t it?

Four-year olds are invited into a room with a researcher and told that they can have a marshmallow. It is placed on a little plate in front of them. Then they are told that if they are willing to wait 15 minutes, they can have two marshmallows. The researcher leaves the room and a hidden camera records some very comical minutes. Coming back to the kids 20 years later, researchers find that those who could resist the temptation to gobble it up score at least a couple hundred points higher on their SAT and have greater confidence and concentration, as well as several crucial character traits pointing to success.

Versions of the test over the years have added other parameters. One that I find very interesting is that it doesn’t matter whether the kids choose on their own or are coached with some strategies to succeed; if they can wait, however they choose to do it, they will be more successful. The implications are huge in so many fields of study. So I apply it to mine.

I tell the kids that the single thing that is going to sink them financially is the belief that they have to have what they want now. I hand them a red folder with financial success tools that I’ve gathered, budget worksheets, ways to negotiate a used car purchase, how to be wise in where you sign your name, programs that are available for low-income persons to invest with matching funds; it’s a half-inch thick. And then I tell them that they can throw the whole folder away if they can remember four words: I Can’t Afford It.

You might think kids who have not been taught by parents to delay gratification, who are ripe for addictions and “lower functioning,” might openly reject it. They do not. They listen with wide-open eyes. You might think they can’t learn a work ethic because they came from poverty. It’s baloney. There is a world of Horatio Algers out there.

It’s interesting to me how different groups of people define themselves. People who have experienced long-term financial stress know of a surety that it’s all their fault. But they are little different in character from people who have not experienced significant financial stress, with one notable exception: they will listen.

Just as the ability to wait 15 minutes to eat a marshmallow is a crucial  test of our future success, I am thinking that the ability to listen is a crucial indicator of future wisdom. Not exactly a shocking revelation, but I’m thinking that listening is more than just hearing; it’s giving value to what is said, unsaid, and merely occurs to us in the experience.

I’m suddenly a little nervous on both fronts, having comfortably settled back at my pre-loss weight and having too many venues in which I’m supposed to teach. I think I’m going to pass up a few more marshmallows and shut up a little more often, exercising my body and my soul a little more consistently. Maybe with consistent efforts, when I grow up I’ll do better on my entrance exams.

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