Marshmallow Men

When it comes to that magical place where science intersects deliciousness, there may not be a series of studies that have gotten more media attention than the “marshmallow studies”. As the results are often presented, preschool children who demonstrate the ability to put off eating one marshmallow now in order to receive two later, go on to do better in school, score higher on the SATs, have better health, and do better according to all sorts of other criteria we associate with success. These studies, the first of which dates back to the 1960s, have become very popular as evidence that self-discipline is the best predictor–and most important factor–of future success. And a failure to achieve means a lack of self-discipline.

As is often the case, however, the narrative that gets the most attention doesn’t really line up with the science.

The initial marshmallow research [pdf] was led by Walter Mischel of Stanford University. Mischel and his team were not actually looking at whether certain children could refrain from eating a treat–nor were they studying whether kids who obstained from eating a marshmallow right away would go on to have better life outcomes. In fact, what they were studying was what conditions and strategies led to kids being able to wait for the treat. What they discovered was that certain situations–such as giving kids a toy to play with, or even just telling them to think about fun things–resulted in most of the kids being able to wait for two marshmallows, while other conditions–such as telling the kids to think about marshmallows–led to most kids failing to wait. The difference, in other words, wasn’t a matter of which 3 year old had a steel will and which didn’t, but rather came down to the environmental factors present and the strategies the kids utilized.

Later research–some of which Mischel was involved in [pdf]–has shown a correlation between kids demonstrating the ability to delay gratification with future success, but there isn’t much to suggest that the relationship is causal. Mischel and others note that both may be the result of factors in a child’s home-life. Some recent studies [pdf] also note how a child’s beliefs in the reliability of his environment can significantly influence whether he waits for two marshmallows or eats the first one immediately.

Studies by Roy Baumeister at Florida State have demonstrated how one’s “willpower” and decision-making abilities are like a muscle that will both fail if over-exerted and get stronger over time with exercise–and are even affected by blood glucose levels.*

So if we’re concerned about a child’s ability to delay gratification (which, it should be noted, isn’t necessarily the best choice in every situation) or whether he has the qualities necessary to be successful in school, in sport, or in life, we should be focused on what environmental conditions we’re presenting him with and what strategies we’re teaching him.

It’s not uncommon to hear coaches, for example, complain that none of their students have the discipline they need to excel in sport, placing the responsibility for success entirely on the students. Framing a weak program in this way means that, while the coach may have protected himself to some degree from the anxieties of self-doubt, he has no reason to reevaluate the structure of his program and make improvements to his training. If the difference between successful and unsuccessful athletes is just a matter of their “self-discipline”, then the only thing the coach should be doing is waiting for the “right” students to walk in.

The alternative is to reconsider what’s going on in training and how it might be affecting the students’ ability to focus, learn, and perform. Institutionalized boredom has a long history in both academic and athletic education. It’s entirely common–maybe even expected–to find students given exercises in classrooms and gyms that do little to engage them mentally, but demand their passive obedience. Children are expected to suffer through these dull and miserable conditions. Their ability to do so is lauded as “self-discipline”, while failure is seen as a sign of weakness.

We can all relate to this experience: whether in the context of doing schoolwork that did little to improve our understanding of (and possibly soured us on) the subject matter, or engaging in sports training that consisted of hours of mindless “drills”. As a result, it can be hard as teachers and coaches to envision a different approach. What is school if it’s not hours of boring busywork? What is sports training if it’s not hours of dull, mindless repetition? Answering these questions is necessary if we wish to improve both the children’s experience and their performance.

Built into the celebration of “self-discipline” is an acceptance of the idea that the work necessary for success must be unpleasant. No one thinks in terms of “self-discipline” when it comes to enjoyable tasks. “I can’t believe Timmy has the self-discipline to play all of those video games” sounds a little weird. However, there is no shortage of examples–especially in sport–where the key to success wasn’t the strength to persevere through misery but rather a love of the activity.

So instead of lamenting his lack of self-disciplined students, a coach looking for more success should be considering ways to make his training more excitingmore engaging, and more fun. Not only will the students start learning more, but–as we see from Walter Mischel’s first experiment–they will be better at coping with delayed gratification (such as having to deal with not winning immediately) because they will have those enjoyable things present (those “fun things” to think about) to keep them focused on the moment.

Instead of expecting children to arrive pre-made for success, coaching needs to focus on creating a training environment that makes becoming a success enjoyable and more likely. After all, a coach with a fun and exciting program can eat as many marshmallows as he likes.

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*See Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Baumeister and John Tierney.