Skip links

What have marshmallows got to do with how successful you are?

Today we live in a world of expecting everything to happen straight away and sometimes even yesterday!

It wasn’t that long ago that we had dial-up modems and the internet cut out if a family member picked up the phone yet nowadays we pull our hair out if we haven’t got 4G internet loading within half a second on our smartphones whilst standing in the middle of nowhere.

The quick kicks that come from getting everything immediately can be detrimental but there’s a much more important lesson to be learned from understanding our need for instant gratification and it was discovered from using marshmallows!

In the 1960s, a Stanford professor named Walter Mischel began conducting a series of important psychological studies.

During his experiments, Mischel and his team tested hundreds of children — mainly around the ages of 4 and 5 years old — and revealed what is now believed to be one of the most important characteristics for what determines success in your health, work, and life.

I’m going to explain what happened and, more importantly, how you can use it.

The Marshmallow Experiment

The experiment began by bringing each child into a room on their own, sitting them down on a chair, and putting a marshmallow on the table in front of them.

The researcher then offered a deal to the child.

He told the child that he was going to leave the room and that if the child did not eat the marshmallow while he was gone, then they would be rewarded with a second marshmallow. However, if the child decided to eat the first one before the researcher came back, then they would not get a second marshmallow.

So the choice was simple: one marshmallow right now or two marshmallows later.

The researcher then left the room for 15 minutes.

This was all filmed and as you can imagine, the footage of the children waiting alone in the room was quite comical to watch. Some kids jumped up and ate the first marshmallow as soon as the researcher left. Others wiggled and bounced and scooted in their chairs as they tried to restrain themselves, but eventually gave in to temptation a few minutes later. And finally, a few of the children did manage to wait the entire time.

Published in 1972, this popular study has been known as The Marshmallow Experiment since, but it wasn’t the marshmallows that made it famous. The interesting part came years later.

The Power of Delayed Gratification

The researchers conducted follow up studies and tracked each child’s progress in a number of areas over a number of years. What they found was surprising.

The children who were willing to delay gratification and waited to receive the second marshmallow ended up having higher SAT scores (Americian version of GCSE’s), lower levels of substance abuse, lower likelihood of obesity, better responses to stress, better social skills as reported by their parents, and generally better scores in a range of other life measures. 

The researchers followed each child for more than 40 years and over and over again, the group who waited patiently for the second marshmallow succeed in whatever capacity they were measuring. In other words, this series of experiments proved that the ability to delay gratification was critical for success in life.

And if you look around, you’ll see this playing out everywhere…

  • If you delay the gratification of watching television and get your homework done now, then you’ll learn more and get better grades.
  • If you delay the gratification of buying sweets and chips at the shop, then you’ll eat healthier when you get home.
  • If you delay the gratification of finishing your workout early and put in a few more reps, then you’ll be stronger.


… and countless other examples.

Success usually comes down to choosing the pain of discipline over the ease of distraction. And that’s exactly what delayed gratification is all about.

This brings us to an interesting question: Did some children naturally have more self-control, and thus were destined for success? Or can you learn to develop this important trait?

What Determines Your Ability to Delay Gratification?

Researchers at the University of Rochester decided to replicate the marshmallow experiment, but with an important twist. (You can read the study here.)

Before offering the child the marshmallow, the researchers split the children into two groups.

The first group was exposed to a series of unreliable experiences. For example, the researcher gave the child a small box of crayons and promised to bring a bigger one, but never did. Then the researcher gave the child a small sticker and promised to bring a better selection of stickers, but never did.

Meanwhile, the second group had very reliable experiences. They were promised better crayons and got them. They were told about the better stickers and then they received them.

You can imagine the impact these experiences had on the marshmallow test. The children in the unreliable group had no reason to trust that the researchers would bring a second marshmallow and thus they didn’t wait very long to eat the first one.

Meanwhile, the children in the second group were training their brains to see delayed gratification as a positive. Every time the researcher made a promise and then delivered on it, the child’s brain registered two things: 1) waiting for gratification is worth it and 2) I have the capability to wait. As a result, the second group waited for an average of four times longer than the first group.

In other words, the child’s ability to delay gratification and display self-control was not a predetermined trait but rather was impacted by the experiences and environment that surrounded them. In fact, the effects of the environment were almost instantaneous. Just a few minutes of reliable or unreliable experiences were enough to push the actions of each child in one direction or another.

What can you and I learn from all of this?

How to Become Better at Delaying Gratification

Before we go further, let’s clear one thing up for one reason or another, the Marshmallow Experiment has become pretty well known. But these studies are just one piece of data, a small insight into the story of success. Human behaviour (and life in general) is a lot more complex than that, so let’s not pretend that one choice four-year-old makes will determine the rest of his or her life.


The studies above do make one thing clear: if you want to succeed at something, at some point you will need to find the ability to be disciplined and take action instead of becoming distracted and doing what’s easy. Success in nearly every field requires you to ignore doing something easier (delaying gratification) in favour of doing something harder whether that be more reps in the gym or working more hours etc.

But the key takeaway here is that even if you don’t feel like you’re good at delaying gratification now, you can train yourself to become better simply by making a few small improvements. In the case of the children in the study, this meant being exposed to a reliable environment where the researcher promised something and then delivered it.

You and I can do the same thing.

If you follow me on social media you will know I put myself up for ‘silly’ challenges that take me 30-90 to complete like learning to ride a unicycle or handstand walks etc. There is a purpose behind them though, I am proving to myself over and over again that I can learn and achieve something new that I haven’t done before as a result of being patient and putting in the effort. This then gives me faith when it comes to achieving the much bigger challenges because I know I achieve things I set out on.

We can train our ability to delay gratification, just like we can train our muscles in the gym. And you can do it in the same way as the child and the researcher: by promising something small and then delivering. Over and over again until your brain says, 1) yes, it’s worth it to wait and 2) yes, I have the capability to do this.

Here are 4 simple ways to do exactly that:

  • Start incredibly small. Make your new habit “so easy you can’t say no.” i.e. I am going to walk a mile a day
  • Improve one thing, by one percent. Do it again tomorrow. repeat. i.e walk further or pick up the pace.
  • Be consistent, no excuses. i.e. walk every day, if you can’t do every day agreed to every 2 or 3 days but what every you agree to, stick to.
  • Just start and the rest will fall into place. i.e. focus on getting into your gym clothing and get out the door

There you have it. Not eating that marshmallow means more than you thing!

Until next time… make it happen.


p.s. Have you downloaded my free ebook Staying Positive: 10 Simple Tips to Staying Positive? Click here to download it now!


Source: James Clear

Leave a comment