Marshmallows were used in a famous experiment by psychologist Walter Mischel for the Stanford marshmallow experiment. The goal was to find out how well young children can control themselves. But what is self-control, and why is it important?
Self-control, also called deferred or delayed gratification, is the ability to wait in order to obtain something one desires. In the Stanford Marshmallow experiment, children sat down on a table on which there was a marshmallow (or something else they liked to eat). They were told that they were allowed to eat the marshmallow, but if they waited for 20 minutes, they would get a second marshmallow. The longer they could wait, the higher their self-control.
But why is self-control important? A recent study by Terrie E. Moffitt from Duke University and her colleagues followed 1,000 children from Dunedin, New Zealand, from their birth until age 32. They found that children with higher levels of self-control were at adult age healthier and better off financially. They were also less likely to commit crimes and to become substance dependent. To name a few findings in detail: Children with high self-control were less likely to drop out of school, to become unplanned teenaged parents, and to become single parents. This was true even after controlling for socioeconomic status and IQ.
The original study can be found in the journal PNAS, a summary of it can be found in the Research Digest of the BritishPsychological Society, a blog.
What does this mean? As a parent, it is important to teach one’s children self-control. This can start at a very young age. The children in Mischel’s experiment were between four and six years old. But Moffitt and colleagues found that also adolescents can profit from interventions that raise their self-control. And given the fact that personality traits can change across a lifespan (Roberts,Walton, and Viechtbauer, 2006), it is likely that even adults can improve their self-control. It is worth it because it predicts a better health and financial situation.