Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Update on the famous marshmallow study.

You probably all have heard something about the famous marshmallow study. To recap, kids were given a marshmallow and told they could either eat it or wait for 15 minutes and get 2 marshmallows.  The assumption was that all of the kids would prefer getting a second one, but might not be able to wait 15 minutes to get it.

The average wait time was 6 minutes before kids succumbed to temptation and ate the one marshmallow.  This was attributed to a lack of self-control and inability to delay gratification.  But it was the long term results that made the study famous.  Looking at these kids 20 years later, the ones that were able to wait longer showed incredible differences from the ones that weren't.  This self-control led to higher interpersonal skills, higher SAT scores, less substance abuse, higher salaries, lower incarceration rates, and many others. Amazing.
A new study investigated some of the details behind this finding.  What they found is that it also has to do with trust.  You can imagine that kids who grow up in environments where future rewards sometimes never appear are smarter to take the immediate reward.  This isn’t a foolish failure of self-control but rather taking advantage of the bird in hand rather than hoping for the two in the bush.  Specifically, they ran a pre-test before the marshmallow where the kids were asked to work on an art project with some old crayons and just one sticker.  The experimenter promised to get them new crayons and more stickers in a few minutes.  In one case they came through.  In the other case they apologized and said they didn’t have any new supplies after all.  Then the marshmallow test was done.  The kids who got the promised art supplies waited an average of 12 minutes for the second marshmallow.  The ones that didn't get any new art supplies waited on only 3 minutes. 

What does this mean?  Kids have more self-control than we thought.  It is just a question of whether they think it is worth using.  In the original study, the kids don’t know the experimenter from a hole in the wall.  Are they really going to show up with a second marshmallow?  If not, why bother to wait?  So the 6 minute average wait is between the 12 and 3 minute range.  Apparently, they had a medium trust for the unknown dependability of the experimenter.

Here is a key takeaway that I can pull out of the results.  It still remains that kids who have better self-control and can delay gratification do better in the long term.  What this study suggests is that if we teach our kids to have some confidence in the future, they develop a stronger ability to delay gratification.  Since this increases their chances of being successful in the future, it should be an easy sell to parents. Teach your kids that the future is bright.  They will develop more self control and their future really will turn out bright.

How do we teach kids to have confidence in the future?  It is all about experience.  It seems pretty easy for parents to get into a habit of telling their kids to expect some reward in the future and then delivering it.  From what I know about learning, they should do this with different sized rewards and different length delays.  Just be consistent in delivering whatever is promised.  Obviously real life doesn’t allow us to be 100% reliable, but at least be as careful and reliable as you can. 

I would imagine that this is also good workplace advice.  If you want workers to keep the long term interests of the company top of mind, it would help to be reliable in delivering on promises.  Common wisdom in change management tells us that when change proposals are perceived as the latest flavor of the day that the company either will fail to put long term resources behind or that will not have any benefits for the employee, they will fail to take hold in company processes or culture.  So let’s add the “Boy Who Cried Wolf” to the “Bird in Hand” adage. 

Final word:  The more you cry wolf, the more employees/kids/partners/friends/etc will take the bird in hand in the future.  To add one last adage, "you reap what you sow."