Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Don't Eat that Marshmallow!

In Psychology related fields, some great experiments - yeah, I mean those strange tests performed by people wearing white lab coats - were carried out. Among the more interesting we can list Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment (1971), Milgram's Obedience Experiment (1963), Festinger and Carlsmith Experiment on Cognitive Dissonace (1959), Asch experiments on conformity (1950s) the more recent "jam tasting" Experiment by Lepper and Iyengar (2000), and so on and so forth... These experiments were great because they were able to tell something about human nature in a very simple way.

Today I want to briefly describe one of these very famous experiments: W. Mischel's Marshmallow experiment; here is what happened. Children were invited in the laboratory and given a Marshmallow. Then the experimenter would tell the little kid: "Now I have to go away for some time. You can decide whether you want to eat your marshmallow now or when I come back. If you can wait till I come back I'll give you another one, so you can have two". Some kids would eat it right after the guy left the room, others tried for a while but could not resits the temptation. At the end, it turned out that only one out of three kids was able to wait the twenty minutes before the researcher would come back. (if you want to give a look at how children behaved in a recent reproduction of the experiment watch the video below; it's hilarious trust me).

Now comes the interesting part. The children were tracked down years and years later and it turned out that those who were able to wait were on average more successful adults and apparently more intelligent (they scored, on average, 210 point higher on the SAT test) Incredible isn't it? From such a simple experiment it is possible to predict whether a child has more or less probabilities of being succesful. Self discipline - the ability to delay gratification in exchange for long-term goal achievement - would be therefore an important factor in determining people success (according to the experiment).

This example can be used to discuss an important aspect of our lives with which we have to deal on a daily basis: self control. Think about it, how many times every day you have to deal with it? Here are just a couple of situations we find ourselves continuosly: shall I wake up and go to class or sleep another hour? Am I having another beer? C'mon another slice of cake is not going to kill me! (this was for girls) I can't eat out every day. I am spending too much! from tomorrow I'll stop! Yeah, I'll have another cigarette; the last one for today... I have to go to the gym... and so on and so forth... I bet you can recognize yourself in at least one of the examples I provided above. If not... Congratulations! ...or better: start enjoying life a bit more!