Stanford Study on Self-Control

During the 1960s, psychologist Walter Mischel conducted what became known as “the marshmallow test” with four-year-olds in the preschool at Stanford University. The object of the exercise was to assess each preschooler’s ability to delay gratification. Each child was given one marshmallow. They were told that they could eat it immediately or, if they waited until the researcher returned in 20 minutes, they could have two marshmallows.

Some kids in the group just couldn’t wait. They gobbled down the marshmallow immediately. The rest struggled hard to resist eating it. They covered their eyes, talked to themselves, sang, played games, even tried to go to sleep. The preschoolers who were able to wait were rewarded with two marshmallows when the researcher returned.

Twelve to fourteen years later, the same kids were re-evaluated. The differences were astonishing. Those who had been able to control their impulses and delay gratification as four-year-olds were more effective socially and personally as teenagers. They had higher levels of assertiveness, self-confidence, trustworthiness, dependability, and a superior ability to control stress. Remarkably, their Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores were also 210 points higher than the “instant gratification” group!

A key difference between successful people—leaders—and those who struggle to get by is self-discipline. As Confucius wrote, “The nature of people is always the same; it is their habits that separate them.” Successful people have formed the habits of doing those things that most people don’t want to do.

Contributed by: Grant van Boeschoten

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