The Marshmallow Test: How to Prioritize our Purpose First

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I have a confession to make. I am pretty sure that had I taken the marshmallow test as a child, I would have failed it. I did not grow up with a lot of self-control. In fact, it was a long time before I could even face the fact that I had an impulsivity problem.

The good news is, I don’t think I would fail a similar test for adults now.

The skills demonstrated by the marshmallow test can be learned, they can be developed over time. And in this article, I will give you an idea of how to do this.

In this article, you will learn:

  • What the marshmallow test is
  • The history of the marshmallow test over time
  • How this plays in to our purpose in life
  • How to increase our ability to prioritize the long-term

What is the Marshmallow Test?

The marshmallow test was originally conducted in Stanford University by Professor Walter Mischel. The most famous test took place in 1972, but related tests had also been conducted at Stanford University two years prior.

In this study, children were offered a choice between eating one marshmallow instantly, or getting two marshmallows if they could wait in the room for 15 minutes.

The children were tracked throughout their lives, and the researchers found that those who showed apparent self-control and waited for 15 minutes found greater success in life. They found that these children grew up to have:

  • Higher SAT scores
  • A better body mass index
  • Increased wealth
  • Improved education

Now I know there are going to be certain people that point out that some subsequent studies have failed to replicate the same results, and that’s fine. There are, of course, other factors at play than just willpower or the ability to prioritize delayed gratification.

In fact, certain factors like family income, education of the parents, and the community in which the children live are arguably more important based on recent findings. But that doesn’t mean that delayed gratification is a bad thing. Quite the opposite. Learning to focus our delayed gratification is the key to getting everything we want in life.

Why Is the Marshmallow Test Important?

This success came from delayed gratification, or the ability to put off small pleasures now in favor of larger pleasures in the future.

This relates directly to the pain-pleasure principle that I talked about in a previous article, which states that everything we do is to either gain pleasure or avoid pain.

The complicating factor in the pain-pleasure principle is that time can make a difference. We are much more likely to seek small pleasures in the short term even if it leads to large pain in the long-term. Conversely, we are more likely to avoid small pain in the short term even if it leads to greater pleasure in the long-term.

The marshmallow test is the perfect exemplar of this. The child could have one marshmallow now (i.e. the short-term pleasure) or they could wait for a relatively short time and and gain two marshmallows (i.e. the greater long-term pleasure).

We have to harness this power into our own lives by giving up the small pleasures now in favor of the larger pleasures of the future.

If we can do this, our futures are bright.

Trust: a Key to Delayed Gratification

There have been several studies of the original participants of this test, along with a number of follow-up studies.

One in particular is worth noting. In 2012 at the University of Rochester, researchers divided children into two groups.

The first group was given a broken promise before the marshmallow test was initiated.

The second group was given a fulfilled promise before the marshmallow test began.

The researchers found that the children who had been given the broken promise were less likely to wait for the reward. They couldn’t trust that the researchers would actually give them the two marshmallows at the end of the test, therefore they just ate the first marshmallow.

The second group, however, performed roughly the same as the original research group. Many chose to wait in favor of getting two marshmallows.

The conclusion here is that trust is an important factor. If we do not believe that we can achieve something in the future, if we do not have hope, then we are not likely to delay our pleasure or confront our pains in the short term.

Why Delayed Gratification Is a Good Thing

In the moment, delaying our gratification doesn’t feel great. We want what we want when we want it, and putting that off can feel painful. And guess what? We don’t like pain.

But in almost every instance, delaying our gratification is a good thing in the long run. After all, great achievements are most often achieved through hard work, and most geniuses in any field got there through thousands of hours of practice.

Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, is the key example of this. The book brilliantly illustrates that no one achieved mastery of anything without thousands of hours of work. Every person that we see as naturally gifted in any field did not get that way without practice.

Imagine wanting to play the piano, sitting down to look at sheet music, then giving up because you don’t understand anything about what those little symbols mean.

Of course you don’t, you’re just starting out. And you know what? Every famous concert pianist started out in the exact same way. Every one of them had a moment in their life where they couldn’t understand sheet music, and had no idea what a piano even was.

Likewise, you can’t expect to go to the gym once and come out completely jacked. It takes months and months, hours and hours, before you can see any truly measurable results. And all of that takes effort and pain.

But you know what? It’s worth it. We all have goals in life, goals that would give us pleasure to achieve. But most of them will not happen without consistent effort, without small short-term pain in favor of long-term pleasure.

That’s the beauty of the marshmallow test, it is the perfect encapsulation of what we need to do with our own lives.

Prioritize Purpose First

Whenever I start working with clients, I show them my pyramid of life mastery. Each level of the pyramid builds on those beneath it, with those at the bottom providing a more solid foundation upon which to build.

I put purpose at the very bottom, because without purpose, why do we do anything?

mythical mastery pyramid

I always start with purpose first, because it gives us a reason to change all other behaviors.

It’s the ultimate marshmallow.

We know that the purpose of life is to be the best version of ourselves. So decide, what does that look like, and what little pains will you have to go through now in order to pursue that purpose?

How to Increase Our Ability to Prioritize the Long-Term

One of the interesting things that came out of the marshmallow test, is the way in which the children managed to avoid eating the marshmallow for the first 15 minutes.

Researchers thought that by focusing in on the desired result of getting to marshmallows after 15 minutes, that would provide the willpower that the children needed. They may have also thought that the children would just grin and bear it, getting through the 15 minutes on pure willpower alone.

But that’s not what happened.

Instead, the children found ways to distract themselves. They would sing songs, hide their head with their arms, fidget with their feet, play with the signal bell that was in the room, talk to the ceiling, etc.

This lines up with further research on the subject of willpower. Researchers have found that those who appear to have strong willpower are actually those that change their environment so that they are tempted less.

This is a powerful lesson.

If we can make changes to our environment so we are tempted less, we can be intentional about moving toward our purpose and vision, and avoiding the short-term pleasures.

While the methods used by the children in this experiment were simple, they were essentially using systems to achieve the desired results. They found ways to suppress and distract themselves from the wrong behavior, replacing the undesired action with something harmless.

So it’s not about willpower, but about intentional systems.

To go into what those systems look like would be several books on their own, so I will not get into them here. But we can start by removing temptations from our surroundings and finding new environments, new people to surround ourselves with that will shape us into the people we want to be.

In short, we have to build the train and lay the tracks that lead to our purpose. Only then can we hop on the train and ride it to its destination.

But the good news is that once we put in the work to build the train and the tracks, it’s a smooth ride from there.