Would You Pass The Marshmallow Test?

Can you delay your want for instant gratification? Here's how to teach yourself how to wait for the second marshmallow.
President, Proximo, LLC
July 12, 2011

In 1972, psychologist Walter Mischel of Stanford University conducted a novel experiment. Researchers led children aged between four and six years into a room consisting of only a table and a chair. The researcher would place a marshmallow on the table in full view of the child, and as his or her mouth started watering, the researcher offered the child a choice: eat the marshmallow now or wait 15 minutes to eat it and receive a second marshmallow as a reward for having patience. Six hundred children participated in the experiment—approximately one-third showed sufficient self-control to receive the second marshmallow. When follow-up studies were conducted on the children over several decades, there was a strong correlation between success in life and being able to wait for the second marshmallow.

The ability to delay gratification is correlated to success in business

In the nearly 40 years that have passed since this experiment was conducted, many studies have shown similar results—there is a correlation between success in life and your ability to delay instant gratification. It’s natural to want what we want immediately. Many industries thrive based on this flaw in human nature. Impulse purchases, for example, are a key profit driver for the retail industry. Billions of dollars are sold every month via direct response television advertising which plays on our desire for immediate satisfaction.

The companies that use these strategies to sell act very differently when it comes to their own decision-making. If you are a business owner, your inability to keep your impulses under control will have dire consequences for your business. The decisions that you make will not focus on long-term value for your customers but instead on short-term rewards for your pocket. This is exactly the opposite approach that successful businesses take.

Common mistakes associated with the delay of instant gratification

The corrosive effects of an inability to delay instant gratification in decision-making are all encompassing. Common examples include:

  • Offering discounts too quickly to potential customers because you don’t have the patience to follow through on a long negotiation process.
  • Making hasty decisions because the effort involved in gathering the appropriate information takes too long for your degree of patience.
  • Seeking “magic bullet” solutions to solve fundamental business problems instead of methodically working through proven processes.
  • Recruiting employees that tend to agree with you or display similar impulsiveness to avoid having a diversity of opinions which may produce better results but take longer to process.
  • Bouncing from opportunity to opportunity simply because you smell a quick buck.

Teach yourself to wait for the second marshmallow

Many business experts believe that people are incapable of change beyond a certain age in life. I completely disagree. If you have the desire to effect a positive change in your behavior it most certainly is possible—with effort. Consider:

Recruiting managers and executives that have experience building a company over the long-term

Having people around you that operate with patience and the ability to wait for the second marshmallow will help set the tone at your organization towards long-term success instead of instant gratification.

Consciously taking note of your weak points

When do you display the behaviors associated with an inability to delay gratification? Is it when a client dangles a juicy renewal contract in front of you? Or does it happen when a new development project suddenly takes longer than anticipated? Find the pain points to which you are susceptible and make a conscious effort to avoid falling back on your bad behavior. Assign a small team or a manager to lead the process while you adapt.

Changing your role within the organization

Perhaps you are the founder of your company and have tremendous technical expertise or have an intimate knowledge of the customer. This type of experience can be used productively in many areas within your company. Perhaps you should consider changing your role as President to one more appropriate for someone without patience for long-term value generation. Is this extreme? Yes. But the end result of having a CEO that can’t manage this personality trait is business failure.