What can Millennials (and we) Learn from Marshmallows?

MarshmallowImagine you are four years old.  You are sitting in a room with a friendly adult who puts a marshmallow on the table in front of you.  He tells you that you may eat the marshmallow right now, or if you can wait until he returns from a quick errand, he will give you another marshmallow and you may eat two.  What would you do?

This is exactly what the researchers at Stanford University did in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s to study delayed gratification, a form of self-control.  The initial studies used marshmallows, although cookies and pretzels were added to the rewards as they repeated the studies over the years.  This ‘Marshmallow Experiment’ has been replicated many times in various ways with even Oprah getting into the game.

The researchers of the original Marshmallow Experiment tracked the children who participated through their years in grade school, high school, college and into their careers. Their findings were quite remarkable.  The researchers found that children who were able to wait for the adult to return so they could have two marshmallows tended to have better life outcomes than those who impulsively ate the first marshmallow.  They had better relationships with other children in school, had considerably higher SAT scores and educational attainment, better body mass index (BMI) scores and were more successful in their careers and marriages.  All because they could control their impulses – a key emotional intelligence competency.

Fast forward to today where our world is one of instant gratification.  You want to settle a bet as to whether Paul Giamatti starred in Saving Private Ryan or not?  Google it.  Want to watch Game of Thrones?  Stream it.  Gotta have that Bose noise cancelling headset?  Amazon can overnight it.  Want to meet someone new?  Swipe left.  Gone are the days of going to the library to do research for a term paper or the store to shop for the perfect gift for your sweetheart.  Technology has made life so much easier, so much better.   Or has it?

If you were born after 1984, chances are you text more than you talk with your friends and your ‘friends’ are the list of names in your Facebook or the people’s pictures you see on Instagram.  You don’t know what it’s like to wait for much of anything.  Why would you need to when your technology can get it for you almost instantaneously?

What they’ve found is when kids are using their devices and social media to ‘connect’ with friends, it is equivalent to a dopamine reaction.  Seeing how many ‘likes’ they get feels good and it’s addicting.  Same with texting.  When you get a text, you must look at it immediately, right?  It’s kind of like Pavlov’s dogs who began salivating at the sound of a bell.  Therein lies the danger of texting while driving.  We hear a text come in while at the wheel and curiosity gets the best of us…we HAVE to look.  We have no self-control to put off that instant gratification.

It’s not just millennials who are affected.  Adults of all ages fall prey to this addiction.  We sit in meetings with our cell phones and maybe even our laptops because we just can’t stand the thought that a text or email may come in and we take an hour to respond.  Many will argue that they do this in the spirit of being responsive and staying on top of things.  Truth be told, they are addicted to instant gratification. To complicate this further, our colleagues are also addicted so the cycle feeds itself.

What does it mean for our society if we rely on instant gratification?  We’ve already established the dangers of instant gratification while driving.  Let’s look at the relationship implications.  You’re sitting with someone who gets a text while you’re making a critical point.  They politely, or maybe impolitely, divert their attention to their phone and proceed to read it.  Whether they respond or not is irrelevant.   What message did they just send you?  Someone else is more important than you.  If that is their pattern during all your interactions, the residual memory is, “they do not value me.”  Now flip that around.  You are the one reading the texts and your customer is receiving the message loud and clear.

It takes but a moment to think of a Twitter post that launched a Twitter war.  It’s way too easy to voice our opinions to the world without careful consideration of the impact. How many times did we see this during the last election whether on Twitter or Facebook?

If we are prone to instant gratification with our media devices, are we susceptible to it in other areas of our lives?  Does the lack of self-control then show up in our inability to self-manage in a crisis?  Does it make us give up after a week at the gym when we aren’t in shape yet? If we don’t get that raise or promotion after six months, are we disgruntled?   These questions are worth exploring.

I remember my parents gave my brother and me money for good grades as kids.  We could spend it immediately or save it.  They would double whatever we had in our money jars at the end of the school year. For my brother, the money burned a hole in his pocket and he always bought a Hot Wheels car the same day.  He never could afford the Tonka Trucks he desperately wanted.  I, on the other hand, resisted the urge to buy a new Barbie and saved my money.  I had enough at end of each year to buy myself a bike or some other ‘high price tag’ item.  Our saving/spending habits are the same today.

Delaying gratification, or having impulse control, certainly has its merits beyond the Marshmallow Experiment findings.  Anyone who has worked hard to get where they are in life, resisting the urge to give up after the tenth adversity, or who has struggled through a relationship with financial hardships, or even who resisted sending back a nastygram to that condescending email understands the value of managing impulses.  And while technology’s innovations increase speed and bring much enjoyment, they don’t always help build emotional discipline we need to truly succeed in life.

So, are you grabbing that first marshmallow or delaying gratification and holding out for the bigger win?

Thank you for reading.  Make it an emotionally intelligent day.


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