In the experiment, the children were left in a room with a marshmallow in front of them, and told that they could either eat the marshmallow immediately, or wait. If they waited until the experimenter returned from running an errand, then they would be rewarded with two marshmallows.
When Mischel followed up on the children years later, they found a relationship between their response to the experiment and a range of behaviours that were associated with success as an adult.
More recently Goleman (2007) observes that scientists have identified that section of the brain that is involved in this decision making process and impulse control, namely the dorsal fronto-median cortex. Emotional intelligence is wired into our brains.
According to CarbonRational’s Andrew McKeon (2010), the explanation provided for the difference between wait and grab is about having the discipline to defer gratification, along with the trust that the promise of a greater reward will be met.
Examining the case or the reluctance of the United States to adapt its business practices in the light of climate change, McKeon reflects on the lack of these qualities in the American psyche.
Leaders today face a new kind of marshmallow test. The Brundtland Commission’s report “Our Common Future” defines sustainable development as development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
Picture a new version of the experiment as follows. Ten marshmallows are placed on the table. The four year old child is told that he can eat marshmallows whenever he likes, but is not told how many are his to eat. That is for him to figure out.
He is further told that when he is finished eating he can leave the room and then his friend will come in and she will be given the same instructions that he has received.
The researcher also explains that for every 15 minutes that he delays in eating, an extra marshmallow will be added. He is also told that when he eventually leaves the room, the number of marshmallows will be counted.
For every marshmallow above ten, one will be added. Equally, for every marshmallow less than ten, one will be removed.
This second version of the experiment is more complex than the original. There is also no personal reward for delayed gratification in this scenario. Rather, the child is given the opportunity to consider what the consequences of various choices that they face are for others, and to then act.
We could make the experiment even more complex, but that would probably be too confusing for a four year old. Imagine if they were told that the marshmallows might get smaller the longer they thought about it, but did nothing?
In reality, leaders are presented with diminishing marshmallows. Already the human race is using up the Earth’s resources at a faster rate than they are being replenished.
According to BioRegional (2011) our global footprint now exceeds the world’s capacity to regenerate by about 50% and that by 2030 we will need two planets to maintain the same average lifestyle that we currently have.
There are indications that China is buying up and using the rest of the world’s resources, while in some cases (such as coal) simultaneously preserving their own for later use.
So how do we get leaders to wait and to also persuade them to eat a smaller marshmallow? And more importantly, how do they then persuade their followers to do likewise? There are many examples of leaders who are struggling with this type of challenge, whether it is the Greece’s austerity measures, Australia’s carbon tax, or failed talks in Copenhagen, Cancun and elsewhere on quotas for carbon emissions.
Mischel later remarked that the experiment was not so much about the levels of self control and willpower of the research participants, as it was about the way in which they thought about the world.
In the Bible we are told that Abraham lived as an alien in the land of promise, as a pilgrim passing through, rather than as a permanent resident and owner. In similar fashion, leaders need to change their mindsets about the relationship that they have with the Earth and its resources. Stewardship is described by Peter Block’s (1993) as “holding something in trust for another”.
Leaders need to take a moral stand and exercise stewardship, encouraging those that follow them to do likewise. This begins with a mindset change, but will also require sacrifice.
We cannot continue living the way we have been, in the hope that technology will provide an answer to – and an excuse for – our excesses. The environmental imperative is “long fuse, big bang”.
Hoping for a technology bail-out is too risky. The fuse needs to be extinguished, before it is too late. Perhaps it is already …
BioRegional (2011). The Environmental Challenge. [Online] Available here.
Block, P. (1993). Stewardship: Choosing Service Over Self Interest. San Francisco, Calif. : Berrett-Koehler.
Brundtland Commission (1987). Our Common Future. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Goleman, D. (1986). Emotional Intelligence: Why it matters more than IQ. New York?: Bloomsbury.
Goleman, D. (2007). Free Won”t: The Marshmallow Test Revisited. [Online] Available here.
McKeon, A. (2010). Is America Failing the Marshmallow Test? [Online] Available here.
Mischel, W (1958). Preference for delayed reinforcement: An experimental study of a cultural observation. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 56, 57-61.
Shoda, Y., Mischel, W. & Peak, P. K. (1990). Predicting Adolescent Cognitive and Self-Regulatory Competencies from Preschool Delay of Gratification: Identifying Diagnostic Condition. Developmental Psychology, 26 (6), 978-986.