We increasingly hate to wait. If waiting is a kind of muscle, it’s fair to say we’re exercising it less now that packages arrive the same or next day, Visa and Mastercard let us bring stuff home right now, and our devices cushion the waiting-in-line distress while we surf the Internet or read and send texts. Waiting is unlikely to go extinct any time soon, despite its evolution through the decades.
The Stanford Marshmallow Test of 1960 is a well-known study about waiting. Youngsters alone in a room were shown a treat — often a marshmallow but some were shown candy or a pretzel — and were told by the researcher that he’d be leaving them alone for 15 minutes. He explained that if they waited until he returned before eating the treat, they’d receive two treats instead of the one. Some of the children predictably couldn’t resist the temptation and gobbled down the treat, while others waited and received double the reward.
What gave The Marshmallow Test a unique place in research psychology is that Walter Mischel, the primary investigator, tracked down many of the study participants years later. He was astonished to find that the children who delayed gratification and didn’t eat the treat while the researcher was out of the room were found to have better life outcomes, as measured by SAT scores, educational attainment, body mass index, and other indices.
The Marshmallow Test has been a reference point for the importance in life of delaying gratification. While there’s some controversy about Mischel’s conclusions, it’s hard to dispute the idea that youngsters who demand instant gratification — “I won’t wait! I want it now!” — may find it difficult to achieve long-term goals.
It seems wise, then, to give our children practice in delaying gratification. They’ve trained many of us — with our complicity — to answer their phone calls instantly when their name shows up on the caller ID, and to respond to their every text as soon as it arrives. Deep down we sense something awry in our puppet-like obedience, but we’ve embraced the myth that “it could be an emergency” to justify our behavior. It might do our youngsters good to delay our response and sometimes, when what they want has no particular urgency, to not respond at all until we see them later that day. It’s a form of muscle exercise that can serve our kids well.