Don’t Think About the Marshmallow

What does eating marshmallows and retirement saving have in common? Good parenting, coaching and teaching strategies to focus on things other than marshmallows.

by Pete Ferguson

I had a late night at work last night, so my head is a bit fuzzy this morning, but I’ll do my best.

I’ve always been drawn to understanding connection between psychology and success. Today I was reminded of the Marshmallow Test originated by Walter Mischel, Stanford professor of psychology. The study is fairly simple, put a four-year-old in a room, place a marshmallow on the table in front of them and tell them they can eat the one marshmallow now, or wait and have two later and then leave the room and observe.

Don’t think about pink elephants.

Seemingly simple – seemingly a bit innocuous – but as Mischel followed the lives of the four-year-olds, the study became very telling and even a precursor to predicting how the children who could resist eating the one marshmallow would do on their SAT scores and even later in life – their behaviors in saving for retirement.

What, then, determined self-control? Mischel’s conclusion, based on hundreds of hours of observation, was that the crucial skill was the “strategic allocation of attention.” Instead of getting obsessed with the marshmallow—the “hot stimulus”—the patient children distracted themselves by covering their eyes, pretending to play hide-and-seek underneath the desk, or singing songs from “Sesame Street.” Their desire wasn’t defeated—it was merely forgotten.

Apparently, our ability to focus on something besides marshmallows is very telling in how well we can accomplish our goals.

I was reminded of the study as I read several articles on weight loss. Those who obsess over when their next meal is – or when their next free day is going to be – during a time of restraint are not likely to be as committed as those who fold food and exercise into their lifestyle in a more relaxed manner, according to my research.

Don’t think about pink elephants.

In looking at my 2013 goals, one of them is not to think about the marshmallow – or all of the things I’m trying to get away from. Instead, my focus is on enjoying life, and establishing habits, as well as enforcing habits already established, that bring me happiness and joy.

I highly recommend reading the very well-put-together article on the Marshmallow Test in the New Yorker.

What color of elephant are you thinking about?

But if you don’t have time, here is the punchline:

According to Mischel, even the most mundane routines of childhood—such as not snacking before dinner, or saving up your allowance, or holding out until Christmas morning—are really sly exercises in cognitive training: we’re teaching ourselves how to think so that we can outsmart our desires. But Mischel isn’t satisfied with such an informal approach. “We should give marshmallows to every kindergartner,” he says. “We should say, ‘You see this marshmallow? You don’t have to eat it. You can wait. Here’s how.’ ” 




One thought on “Don’t Think About the Marshmallow

  1. Pingback: Ugly Furniture … Time to Change | learnactshare

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