One day while observing his children, Walter Mischel, realized that he had no idea how his daughters of various ages could have self-control one minute then lack impulse control the next. Mischel’s eagerness to understand this phenomenon led to the famous marshmallow study. In 1970, using a group of children, Mischel’s tested a child’s ability to resist the temptation for an immediate reward (i.e. one marshmallow) and wait for a later reward (i.e. two marshmallows). After following the test subjects for 50 years, it was noted that those who waited, scored higher on the SAT, got better grades in school, had a better ability to cope with stress, were healthier, enjoyed greater professional success, and proved better at staying in relationships. The original marshmallow study evaluated a small group of homogenous kids; however, after testing more diverse groups in later years and receiving similar results, Mischel concluded that the three keys to delaying gratification are: (1) keeping the goal in mind, (2) suppressing responses, and (3) monitoring progress toward the goal.
Below are 3 simple strategies educators can use to help students master the three keys to delayed gratification:
Focus on the Why
The most important part of setting a goal is understanding why you want to do it. Understanding why a goal was set helps successful people keep the goal in mind and focus less on any obstacles they may encounter while they work towards them. So, educators should ensure students grasp this concept. However, considering many students learn best with learning is active, a hands-on activity is also encouraged. Vision boards are not only a useful tool to help learners understand why but also to conceptualize their goals and stay motivated.
Two tactics observed in Mischel’s studies that can be taught to control responses are self-distraction and self-distancing. Self-distraction is when one denies the urge to focus on something up close and personal and instead focuses on a future, desired outcome. Self-distancing is when one places distance between themselves and the immediate reward. Both methods help make the things that are more visible, immediate, and/or enticing less attractive while making delayed consequences more obvious, complete, and significant. Some of the children who waited in the marshmallow study used these tactics to make one marshmallow less enticing.
All humans have what Mischel calls a “hot system” and a “cool system.” The “hot system” is fight-or-flight, emotional, stress-induced, impulsive and develops early. On the other hand, the “cool system” is rational, reflective, weakened by stress, crucial to self-control and develops later. If educators spend time helping kids identify their hot spots (i.e. times when they are tempted to react with a “hot system” response) and developing strategies to meditate them, they will encourage students to make more thoughtful decisions. Self-control is like a muscle — it can be strengthened with exercise. As students learn to identify things that trigger their hot system and determine ways to have more “cool responses”, they will find it easier to exercise self-control.
To ensure something more pleasurable is gained later, educators must teach students to monitor their ability to reduce impulsive behavior and engage in more focused, thoughtful behavior. The methods each student will use to reduce impulsive behavior and focus on the goal will vary but each student should be encouraged to create a pre-determined “if/then” plan based on specific trigger points and regularly monitor that plan’s success. According to Mischel, “young people are actually getting better at delaying gratification and self-control.” He attributes this to technology such as video games, which require goal-setting and inhibiting interfering responses to reach a goal. Therefore, stay encouraged my fellow educator, these executive skills can be taught and improved.