Do we need marshmallow experiments at every stage of our lives?

Published: June 22, 2020 4:45 AM

Patience is the state of being that transpires between experience and reaction

The marshmallow test was considered more or less an indicator of self-control. The marshmallow test was considered more or less an indicator of self-control.

By Vidya Hattangadi

The ‘marshmallow experiment’ was conducted in 1972 at the Stanford University’s Bing Nursery School, where psychologist Walter Mischel and his graduate students gave one chocolate to each student. They told the students that if they waited longer, say for 20 minutes, to eat the chocolate, they would get a larger reward of two marshmallows.

Years later, Mischel and his team followed up with the Bing pre-schoolers and found that children who had waited for the reward of two marshmallows generally fared better in life—they fared well in higher studies as well as careers. These students also had a lower body mass index (BMI) 30 years after their initial marshmallow test. Researchers working with Mischel discovered that the parents of the students who delayed eating the chocolate reported that their kids were more competent. The parents, interestingly, were not aware of the chocolate experiment that had taken place in the school.

The marshmallow experiment is measured to be one of the most successful behavioural experiments. Patience allows you time for tactical thinking and completely evaluating a situation. It’s one of the most important personality traits.

I give, hereby, an example of Colonel Harland Sanders, who found the fast-food chicken restaurant chain called the Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), and later acted as the company’s brand ambassador and symbol, and who was fired from many jobs before he started KFC. Colonel Sanders began cooking chicken on his roadside Shell service station in 1930, when he was 40 years old, during the Great Depression. His gas station didn’t actually have a restaurant, so he served diners in his attached personal living quarters.

Over the next 10 years, he perfected his ‘secret recipe’ and the pressure fryer cooking method for the famous fried chickens that were distributed to bigger locations. His chicken was even praised in the media by food critic Duncan Hines—the American pioneer of restaurant ratings for travellers. However, as the interstate system started getting constructed—the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 (the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act) instructed one in five miles road of the interstate system to straighten so airplanes could land in an emergency—it hampered the Kentucky town where Colonel Sanders’ restaurant was located.

It took away a lot of road traffic, and Colonel Sanders was forced to close his business and retire. He was broke and worried how he would survive on his meagre $105 monthly pension, and set out to find restaurants that would franchise his secret recipe—all he wanted was a nickel for each piece of chicken sold. He drove around, sleeping in his car, and his recipe was rejected more than 1,000 times before he finally found his first partner.

Sanders had recognised the potential of the restaurant franchising concept earlier, and the first KFC franchise had opened in South Salt Lake, Utah, in 1952. When his original restaurant closed, he devoted himself full time to franchising his fried chicken throughout the country.

The company’s rapid expansion across the US and overseas became overwhelming for Colonel Sanders. In 1964, then 73-years old, he sold the company to a group of investors led by John Y Brown and Jack C Massey for $2 million.

However, he retained control of operations in Canada, and became a salaried brand ambassador for KFC. In his later years, he became highly critical of the food served by KFC restaurants, as he believed they had cut costs and allowed quality to decline. Colonel Sanders personified what patience is.

With patience, things fall into place, presenting a clearer strategic view of what is taking place. It is better to wait until things calm down, putting you in a better position to take strategic decisions. To say patience is a virtue is an understatement. It’s really more of a skill. It needs constant nurturing. I would put it this way: Patience is the state of being that transpires between experience and reaction. Whether you are trying to be patient with yourself or others, it seems to always involve the experience of dealing with delays and obstacles.

The marshmallow test was considered more or less an indicator of self-control. The original study inspired a surge in research into how character traits could influence educational outcomes (thinking, grit and mindset). It also influenced schools to teach delaying gratification as part of ‘character education’ programmes.

Today, most of us want instant gratification—it is the need to experience fulfilment without any sort of delay or wait. This has led to a whole host of things including online pornography, gambling, drugs, alcohol and money laundering. When it comes to gambling in particular, there are a plethora of new online casinos and apps available on mobile phones that are luring an ever-growing number of players by promising great fun and easy win.

Retailers and entertainment channels are reaping the benefits of the society’s growing impatience. Walmart and eBay have challenged Amazon in a battle of which company can deliver the fastest, because consumer habits have made it clear that they will pay big bucks to avoid the wait. Even when you visit holy places, you pay money and skip the queue to ‘see’ the God at once. You ask for anything—food, flowers, furniture, clean laundry, instant answers on Google, groceries or even a partner. Apps like Tinder, Grindr and JSwipe give you millions of romantic candidates at your fingertips, waiting for you to filter them by location, sexuality, religion, hobbies and how desperate they are for a partner.

This raises the question: Do we need a marshmallow experiment at every stage of our lives?

The author is a management thinker and blogger

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