Don’t eat your marshmallow

You are four years old, recently having discovered the perfect cream-white texture, the chewiness, the delicious fulfillment that is the sweet goodness of a marshmallow.

Then you are in a room, and there is just you and a single marshmallow resting silently on a plate.  You gaze intensely at it, pondering whether to reach out for gratification.  It stares back at you, quietly reading your thoughts, watching your watering mouth.  Smirking.  

You look around.  You are alone.  You want the marshmallow, and there is no one to stop you.

But there is one catch – If you can wait 15 minutes, you get two marshmallows instead.  Two!

It is often easier to promise ourselves productivity in the future than to get something done now. Economists call this common phenomenon present bias — a dollar today is worth more than a dollar tomorrow; losses in the future is better than losses now.

But we are not always so characteristically myopic.  Many scientists agree that humans are the only animals capable of envisioning a “future self,” performing behaviors seemingly counter-intuitive.  Earning a living is generally less pleasurable than spending money, but most of us accept the investment necessary for a better future.

So if you were among the group of children who managed to fend off temptation for 15 minutes, research data show that you may become more successful as an adult.

Yes, there is evidence-based correlation between a child’s ability to postpone the pleasure of eating a marshmallows and future success.

In today’s world, marshmallows are among the less common objects of temptation for children and adults alike.  Instead, we are driven by the intense desire to check text messages even when driving, the need to reduce news to sound bites, following microblogs lasting 140 characters or less.

There are established implausibility and flaws in the marshmallow study, but one underlying lesson is still valid – the skills that enables one to balance between immediate gratification and long-term reward is a component of success.  (In marginally-related news, napping – a strategy used by some children in the original study – is later thought to actually improve productivity.)

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Howard Chen
Vice Chair for Artificial Intelligence at Cleveland Clinic Diagnostics Institute
Howard is passionate about making diagnostic tests more accurate, expedient, and affordable through disciplined implementation of advanced technology. He previously served as Chief Informatics Officer for Imaging, where he led teams deploying and unifying radiology applications and AI in a multi-state, multi-hospital environment. Blog opinions are his own and in no way reflect those of the employer.

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