How marshmallows can encourage students to become successful

From the desk of Dr. Stan Ward, Director of Campus Life and Ministry

I recently read about “the marshmallow test” – a famous psychology study from the 60′s and 70′s that noted correlations between delayed gratification and later success in life. For years educators have taken the experiment to demonstrate the importance of “grit” and self-control.

The study begins as a researcher gives one marshmallow to a child. The researcher then tells the child that the researcher will leave the room. The researcher also explains that if the child can wait to eat the marshmallow until the researcher returns, the child will receive an extra marshmallow. You can see a humorous video that stages the study here. And, if you are interested in a longer summary and discussion of the research, you can click here. In summary: children who were able to wait for two marshmallows generally did better in school later in life than the children who could not wait.

While grit and self-control are certainly important for success in life, a recent update on this experiment demonstrated the importance of another factor: trust. Adults who showed they would make good on their promises helped children delay gratification. Based on their previous experiences with adults, children either trusted that there really was a reward they could look forward to, or they did not. You can read the commentary and download the research here.

For parents and educators who are trying to empower students for success, I suggest two applications.

  1. Help your child recognize and enjoy the positive feelings that are associated with looking forward to a reward. Learning to focus on those positive feelings and helping others focus on such feelings is a life-skill. My own dissertation research supported the similar benefit of leaders who helped their followers focus on the positive feelings that accompanied doing the right thing.
  2. Make sure that you follow through with promised rewards. Regarding follow-through, I can’t help but think about Psalm 15, one of my favorites. The Psalm begins by asking a question, “Lord, who may dwell in your sanctuary? Who may live on your holy hill?” (v. 1). One of the answers is someone “who keeps his oath even when it hurts,” (v. 4).

Nothing about the benefits of delaying gratification and following through on our promises are revolutionary, but their outcomes can literally be life changing.

Question: What “two marshmallows” can you offer your child this week?