Delayed Gratification

One of my wife’s favorite radio stations is NPR or National Public Radio. The quality of the programming is quite good at times and one of her favorite weekend shows is called Radio Lab. This show typically has brief snippets or interviews on varied topics.

This weekend we just happened to be tuned in as we were driving back home from an errand and a story came on that was fascinating to me. It described a study by a gentleman by the name of Walter Mischel to test willpower in four year old children. The concept for the study was shockingly simple: put a kid in a room with a marshmallow (or later on, Oreo cookies), and tell her if she can resist eating it for 15 minutes, she can have 2 marshmallows (cookies). It turns out after tracking the children in the study over many years that the kids who could delay gratification at an early age were much more likely to be successful as adults as defined by education, SAT scores, careers, income and even body weight and overall physical wellness.

Is there a correlation between the ability of a four year old child to delay gratification and your future life? Are there ways to combat these tendencies or is fate written into the stars? This fascinated me and horrified me at the same time. The implications were that if you had certain genetic tendencies then you were likely to be successful and if you happened to have others you were screwed.

The good news was that towards the end of the snippet there was mention of the fact that children who performed poorly on the test could be given tools to help them to combat their tendencies. If these tools were taught to the children, they could learn to exhibit better control over themselves.

This was a relief but also a bitter pill. I say this because in reflecting on my upbringing, it is apparent that I was not given some of these crucial tools that may have helped me to better cope with the demands of life in a way that would have left me with higher functionality.

It is not that my parents lacked the tools themselves or even that they purposefully neglected to teach me these valuable lessons. Rather, I believe that due to their own upbringing, with parents that were very strict and disciplined that they preferred to have a more hands off approach with their children.

While the intention was not to smother or suffocate me, the end result may have been less than satisfactory. Spare the rod and spoil the child? It was not just discipline, it was the lack of practical tools to overcome natural childlike tendencies. Often times there was no repercussion for bad behavior. This led me to feel that I could do what I wanted with impunity, but also that I was on my own to figure out how to live my life.

That is a lonely way to grow up. Could this have led me to my introverted tendencies? Hard to say. As I got older, my brother started having difficulties with his mental health and again I chose to not make waves and stay out of the limelight. Never asking for help, forging my own way as best I could. By this point, I was already using marijuana and drinking as a way to self medicate and this likely created it’s own set of problems.

The set of tools that one has at ones disposal are crucial in my opinion, because as the study illustrates there are many different responses to a given stimuli, but society rewards only certain behavior. The tools help to create responses that will allow a person to cope with their unique makeup in a way that is healthy and productive. Without the proper tools, you end up spinning your wheels trying to gain traction. That is how I have felt for much of my life.

Here is the podcast in case you are interested in listening. Have a great day and feel free to leave your thoughts and I will answer:

Your Future in a Marshmallow – Radio Lab

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