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Don’t eat that marshmallow!


How often do you allow your immediate wants or needs derail your future financial goals? Whether you’re putting money away for retirement or saving for a planned expense, all of your hard work and progress can be doomed by a single moment of weakness.

In October, 1970, a Stanford University psychology professor named Walter Mischel devised an experiment to measure self control, and observe the personality traits and cognitive faculties related to will power. Over 600 pre-school aged children who participated in the study were brought to a room, free of other distractions, and seated at a table; upon which was placed a treat of their choosing—usually a marshmallow. Researchers told the children that they could eat the treat, if they wanted; or wait fifteen minutes and receive a second treat. The instructions were repeated to ensure that subjects understood the premise of the exercise: less now, or more later. The children were then left alone in the room.

A very small percentage of the children in the study succumbed to the temptation to eat the marshmallow almost immediately. Of the remaining participants, two-thirds struggled, but failed to resist the allure of immediate gratification long enough to earn the second marshmallow.

Mischel noted that the children who successfully resisted temptation fidgeted, sang songs, hid under the desk, or employed other techniques to draw their attention away from the marshmallow sitting on the table before them. Under questioning, several of these children described imagining the marshmallow as something else—like a cotton ball—to make it seem less appealing. By introducing distractions and reimagining the present reward, these children were able to retain focus on the benefits of delaying gratification.

Years later, when researchers conducted follow-up interviews with the parents of the children who had participated in the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment–as Mischel’s study has come to be known–they found that those subjects who had successfully resisted temptation for the full fifteen minutes tended to score better on their SAT’s, earn higher grades in school, and had lower incidents of impulsivity, obesity, addiction, and behavioral problems than other children in the study. In one round of follow-ups, researchers discovered that each minute that a child subject resisted eating the first marshmallow “translated to a .2% reduction in body mass index thirty years later” (Wikipedia). Mischel’s experiment—as well as many that have followed—strongly suggests that children with a higher capacity for delaying gratification tend to be healthier, more confident, and more financially secure as adults.

But what about the rest of the children in Mischel’s study? The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment seems to indicate that most people, when presented with the choice between a small, immediate reward or a later, larger one, tend to irrationally prefer the former. A number of environmental, cultural, behavioral, and even physiological conditions may contribute to delay discounting—the cognitive bias that leads an individual to irrationally prefer a smaller, more immediate reward over a larger reward at a later date. In many cases, subjects who exhibit delay discounting behaviors apply the same irrational bias to their assessment of a delayed punishment; such that a future punishment becomes significantly less of a motivator than an immediate reward.

It’s not hard to see how this relates to personal financial management. Too often, our rational comprehension of the benefits of saving money for a future date are undermined by an immediate desire that distracts us from our goals. To make matters worse, the advertising industry works hand-in-hand with the consumer credit industry to diminish our capacity for delaying gratification—bombarding us via mass media and the Internet with images of ever more desirable marshmallows, while providing us with seemingly attractive financing options that make immediate gratification more convenient.

So, how can we resist these temptations? Mischel’s observations of the techniques employed by ‘high delayers’ in the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment suggest that the key to delaying gratification is to remain focused on future goals by distracting ourselves from the tempting object in front of us–thus minimizing it in, or removing it completely from our present perception. Take a walk. Read a book. Sleep on it. Even forcing yourself to step away from temptation for as little as fifteen minutes can significantly reduce your likelihood of succumbing to the allure of immediate gratification.

If that fails, take steps to diminish the desirability of the temptation by focusing on its potential inadequacies–sort of like reimagining the marshmallow as a cotton ball. Before making a major purchase impulsively, read at least three negative reviews of the product on Amazon, or a similar website. By so doing, you significantly reduce the object’s appeal and, thus, its power to entice you to spend irresponsibly.

Finally, remove temptation by unsubscribing from retailers’ e-mail lists and eliminating any resources that make immediate gratification convenient or painless. Use a cash allowance or a debit card tied to a discretionary spending account for occasional unplanned purchases.

Whatever you do, don’t eat that marshmallow.

About Tim Dewey

Tim Dewey is a literature professor and freelance writer living in Minneapolis, MN.

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