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More people should take marshmallow test

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When was the last time you said, "Let's roast some marshmallows?" Since I'm not sweet 16 it was a lot of moons ago for me. Now a report from Stanford University shows marshmallows are good for more than enjoying around a fire. It seems how you handle a marshmallow can tell how you handle other things later in life. In fact, it may even decide if you end up in jail.

Stanford University psychology Prof. Walter Mischel carried out a number of interesting experiments on marshmallows. He tested 653 four-year-old children who all loved marshmallows.

The four-year-olds were placed one at a time in a room containing only a desk and chair. The child was then given a marshmallow and told they could either eat the marshmallow right away or, if they waited for 15 minutes without eating it, they would be given a second marshmallow.

A video showed how they struggled to delay instant gratification. Some kept looking at the marshmallow or touched it and then sucked their finger. Others made a series of facial expressions, wondering what to do. Still others buried their heads in their hands or peeked out of one eye, looking at it, kicked the desk or tugged on their pigtails.

"A few of the kids ate the marshmallow right away," Mischel reports. Only 30 per cent found a way to resist the temptation and received their second marshmallow.

The initial purpose of the experiment was to determine how a child's mental processes would allow some to delay instant gratification, and to study why some children could wait for a second marshmallow.

The goal of the study was expanded several years later. Mischel decided to track down many of the 653 children who had participated in the study. The purpose was to find out whether there was any correlation among those who quickly ate the marshmallow and those who delayed doing so.

Mischel's questionnaire included every human trait he could think of, such as the ability to plan ahead, how they got along with their peers, or whether they had a criminal record. He also requested their SAT (scholastic aptitude test) scores.

So what did he find? He discovered those who quickly ate the marshmallow were more likely to suffer from behavioural problems both in the home and at school. They had trouble paying attention, struggled in stressful situations and found it difficult to maintain friendships. They also had an increased chance of having a weight problem, trouble with drugs and being convicted of a crime.

Those children who could wait for 15 minutes had SAT scores that were, on average, 210 points higher than children who could wait only 30 seconds. They were also more likely to come from high-income families, save for their retirements and study rather than watch TV.

Mischel's experiment concluded all the children wanted the marshmallow, so what determined self-control? The key, he says, was to avoid thinking about it in the first place. The successful children avoided staring at the tempting marshmallow, sang songs from Sesame Street or busied themselves in some other way.

Mischel says adults do the same thing to outsmart their shortcomings. For instance, Odysseus knew he couldn't resist the siren's song, so he tied himself to the ship's mast.

Mischel's advice for the rest of us is that the best way to resist the siren's song is to avoid it. What we call willpower has nothing to do with the will.

One U.S. school, KIPP Academy in Philadelphia, reminds its students that self-control is one of the fundamental "character strengths." To stress this point, they receive a shirt emblazoned with the slogan "Don't eat the marshmallows."

Today, a lack of self-control and a need for instant gratification has caused much of the world's economic, financial and social woes. Maybe it's time for parents to conduct the marshmallow test on their children. And to ensure a better world, it's time to give marshmallows to politicians who believe taxpayers' money grows on trees.

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 26, 2012 A21

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