You’ve probably heard of the Stanford marshmallow experiment. In the ’60s and ’70s, Walter Mischel — a psychologist at Stanford University — put one preschooler at a time at a desk on which he had placed a bell and a couple marshmallows or other treats equally tough for a kid to resist.
“The researcher told each child that he had to leave, but that when he returned, she could eat both marshmallows,” wrote Michael Bourne in a January 2014 New York Times Magazine article. “If she wanted one marshmallow before then, however, she could ring the bell and eat one, but not both.”
Once alone, the children stared at the marshmallows, or sniffed them, or buried their faces in their hands while they pined, or ate the marshmallows like all that is good depended on their digestion. The study, which discerned differences between people who delay gratification and people who don’t, points to an important truth: We are not unlike preschoolers who are left alone with marshmallows.
We have urges, desires, interests, instincts. We want stuff, like to flirt with or date somebody. Some of us are inclined to get or do what we want as soon as we want to get or do it. Few of us consider this: like for the preschoolers who agreed to wait 15 minutes because it meant two marshmallows instead of one, there are good reasons to delay action, even if what you want’s within your reach.
But we resist it because moderation is a lost art.