Learning to Wait for the Marshmallow

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By Sarah E. Knapp

The Stanford marshmallow experiment—an exercise that introduced a cognitive-emotional dilemma to young children to see if they could delay their gratification—is widely known and studied in the psychological community. The children had the option to have one marshmallow now or two if they waited. This study from the late 1960s and early 1970s showed that it is not only harder for some people to wait than others, but that there seems to be a sensitive period in which children that can delay their appetite for gratification become distinct from those who cannot wait. Over the years, the marshmallow experiment has been replicated, and in a follow-up study, researcher Walter Mischel found that the children who at age 4 could wait for two marshmallows were more likely to have higher SAT scores, better jobs, lower anxiety, depression and addictionthan those who could wait. What does one’s ability to wait have to do with how well that individual will perform in life? Maybe a lot.

Children who were able operate reflectively (the ones who waited for two marshmallows) rather than impulsively  scored an average of 210 points higher on their SAT’s, were more cooperative, worked better under pressure, overreacted less to frustration, were less aggressive and had less anxiety, depression and addiction. In short, they seemed to be happier, healthier, more successful and less stressed. As some of the 4-year-olds began to learn the meaning of an if/then relationship—if you wait, then you get two— their attention to this causal sequence grew and they attained the ability to imagine the future benefits weighed against the present cost. Some children, however, did not internalize this type of relationship, and foresight for future paybacks and consequences was not well established.

The Time Paradox, by Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd, discusses what our time perspective has to do with our social life, finances, education and careers, as well as with our anxiety, depression, and addictive behaviors. An empirically validated set of questions called The Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory tells us where we fall on the time perspective continuum. Though there are 5 distinct time perspectives, it is a combination of three orientations (Past-Positive, Present Hedonistic and Future) that serve us best, while the remaining two (Past-Negative and Present-Fatalist) are associated with those character attributes that tend to hold us back in life.

According to Zimbardo, we are all born Present-Hedonists (that is, self-indulgent, impulsive, focused on the pleasures of today at the sacrifice of the rewards or repercussions of tomorrow), yet many learn through various avenues to incorporate other beneficial orientations such as the Future and Past-Positive types into their lives.


zimbardo table

(Table information obtained from Zimbardo, P., & Boyd, J., October 3, 2008, Authors@Google)

People get into trouble when they are too oriented toward the Present-Fatalist and Past-Negative types. All people will have some elements of each, but it is these types that are associated with aggression, addiction, pathology, low energy, low ego strength and stress. Forfeiting internal loci of control, the Present-Fatalist doesn’t bother to study because he feels like it isn’t going to do any good anyways, while the student with overdeveloped Present-Hedonism goes out with friends the night before a final (this is also the type of student that may commit to writing an article for their school’s psychology newsletter when they should know that they have a midterm coming up and will have difficulty getting it done on time). It is the student with the Future time perspective that allots their time wisely, thinks about their obligations, sets a goal, thinks about what needs to be done to obtain that goal, and then follows through.

internet vs paper

People who are more Future oriented also tend to have better health as a result of not smoking or excessively drinking, and obtaining medical care. Researchers Kern and Freidman (2008) determined that Future-oriented individuals have higher levels of conscientiousness, which is directly correlated with a longer life span.

The good news is that you can change your time perspective and gain a more balanced place on the continuum. There were a lot of factors that helped contribute to your current view and it will take work to alter those. Even factors such as socioeconomic status and how close one lives to the equator can contribute to time orientation. A single mother living in severe poverty may have a realistically Present-Fatalist ideal that the future looks hopeless, but when she internalizes that perspective her child begins to do so as well, creating a cyclical effect. When you live in a place with varying weather patterns (i.e. not near the equator), you internalize the idea that you must plan for the future season for your survival. It is these sometimes-subtle circumstances that can make our time perspective seem fixed, but it is not.

Too much of any one type will not pay off. Balance is key. After taking Zimbardo’s Time Perspective Inventory, you can determine how balanced your outlook really is. You may wish to become more Future-oriented. According to Zimbardo and Boyd, you can practice delaying gratification. The next time you want that cookie, tell yourself that you will wait 20 minutes first. It is not about the cookie, it is about practicing waiting and forcing yourself to think about it in the future tense. You can also come up with a goal and chart your progress. You are practicing waiting and it may be harder than it seems for Present- or Past-oriented individuals. If you don’t wear a watch, start doing so. Try to avoid all-or-nothing thinking. Focus on all that it takes between wanting something and obtaining it. Work hard to lead a stable lifestyle so that when uncertainties do come up, you can have reasonable expectations of what the future holds.

If you are too Past- or Future-oriented (being too Future-oriented can lead to working too much and missing out on valuable interpersonal relationships), you may wish to increase your Present time perspective. This is the good part of living in the moment. Zimbardo and Boyd suggest practicing relaxation and spontaneity. Spend time with pets and kids, go to Las Vegas or unwind with a drink now and again. If you are looking to increase your Past orientation, slow down and listen to other peoples’ stories. It may prove helpful to create a family tree to reconnect yourself with your past, or observe traditions that you did as a child. Zimbardo and Boyd offer many other concrete and evidence-based practices for becoming more balanced in The Time Paradox.

It took time to become who we are, and it will take time and practice to get to where we want to be. You may now have a goal in mind for being more balanced and focusing more on the past, present or future than you have been; nonetheless, remember to enjoy yourself and the time you have no matter how or where you focus it. If you want to change, work at it. In the words of John F. Kennedy, “Time is a tool, not a couch.” Make your time work for you.


Kern, M. L., & Friedman, H. S. (2008). Do conscientious individuals live longer? A quantitative review. Health Psychology, 27(5), 505-512. doi:10.1037/0278-6133.27.5.505


Zimbardo, P., & Boyd, J. (2008). The time paradox: The new psychology of time that will change your life. New York, NY US: Free Press.



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