I have now gone thirty years without any significant weight change; indeed, throughout these three decades it has not fluctuated more than 3 pounds either way. In fact, today I weigh exactly what I did when I was eighteen years old. Genes? Nope – my parents gained weight as the years went by. Biology? Not at all – during my 1989-90 sabbatical in San Diego I gained twenty pounds, just from adding a frozen yogurt every day in the university lunchroom. The answer: I passed the “Marshmallow Test” – possibly the most important exam in the life of any child or adult.
What’s the Marshmallow Test? First, you don’t have to use a marshmallow; any tempting treat will do (tempting for the person being tested). Second, this test is usually given to a child around the age of four or five; it’s harder to do with adults, but it could work under the right conditions. Here’s how it goes:
Put the kid in a relatively empty room – the emptier the better because you don’t want other “interesting” things to be within reach that could enable the child to distract him/herself. Sit the child down at a table that has only one plate on it with one, and only one, marshmallow (or other candy). Tell the child that you will be leaving the room for five minutes and that s/he can eat the marshmallow/candy whenever s/he wants, but if s/he does not eat it, then when you return to the room you’ll give them two marshmallows/candies to eat!
This experiment has been performed many times under controlled research conditions, and it tests for “delayed gratification”: whether a person can push off obtaining something desirable right now in order to attain something even more desirable in the “future”. It turned out that many children were able to hold off from that marshmallow – but about the same number were not able to control themselves.
So what? Although the test and its outcome were interesting in itself, the real ramification of the results came only 15 years later – quite clearly (and shockingly). Those children (now going to college) who back then were able to hold off in order to get the larger (later) reward tended to have better life outcomes, as measured by SAT scores, educational accomplishment, lower BMI body mass index (i.e., were slimmer), and other positive life measures! In other words, one simple test at a very early age was better at predicting life success or failure than almost anything else a child could be tested for and about.
Further exploration of the issue revealed some additional insights. Part of the ability to delay gratification was clearly inborn, but that was hardly the full story. Socio-economic background and parental upbringing practices were also influential. Thus, this “ability” is not either-or but rather can be learned or self-taught.
My personal experience (no weight gain) can offer one more insight. If a person has enough motivation for “holding off”, then that can make it easier to push back at temptation. In my case, I had two motivations. First, my father died of heart failure at age 57 and as I started to see that “age” coming up the pike, I felt the need to start taking better care of myself. Second, my love of playing basketball. Unfortunately, one can’t do that well being overweight, especially passing – not the ball – but age 40. As I am wont to joke: when I was young, I would eat in order to play basketball; now I don’t eat, in order to play basketball!
Of course, delaying gratification is easy to say, but a lot harder to do. For each such goal, one needs a “system”. Mine was (still is) simple albeit for some people pretty drastic: I get on the scale every morning! If I’m a pound “overweight”, I diet down a few days. That’s it. I don’t write off cake completely – just a tiny bit here and there; no empty calories – but I will “indulge” once in a blue moon if something really scrumptious comes along.
That’s not for everyone – and in any case, there are many other goals in life for which we could use some delayed gratification, e.g., saving for retirement (or even that expensive vacation you’ve been dreaming about). What’s important is to have a reasonable plan (not completely inflexible) and stick to it by periodically checking on your progress, e.g., that growing pension plan you’re saving up.
And if you have a child or grandchild, do the Marshmallow Test. If the results are not satisfactory, it’s time to start “gratification training”…