I eat your marshmallow

Remember the kid you were in grade school. What if someone put a marshmallow in front of you at that age and asked if you’d rather eat this one now, or instead, wait and get two or more. What would you have done?

I, amigos, was an eat-what’s-in-front-of-me kid.  

According to the original marshmallow study by Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel in the ‘70s, I should have been a doomed child--one with less self-control and therefore a lower chance of success in life.

However, there were two elements missing from this study that would have had me waiting at that table for a long time: Chocolate, and a time-frame. I don’t like marshmallows, so I’d prefer to eat one politely now than have to eat two later.

But, if it was chocolate being offered (which I adore) and I was given a time-frame -- say wait five minutes or five hours -- I would have waited as long as it took.

Research now shows that adding a timeframe to most goals increases self-control and willpower simply because you have a reference point. And even more good news is that we can set these timeframes ourselves.

New Years resolutions are like marshmallows to me. They’re a matter of taste. But, because it’s a symbolically strong start-date, the beginning of a New Year can in-and-of-itself encourage us to accomplish our resolutions. From there however, what else can we do to ensure our January goals come through this year?

Maria Konnikova, the author of “Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes” was the final graduate student of Walter Mischel’s and she writes about how we can increase our ability to wait for that proverbial marshmallow, with less psychological cost. She joins us on this week’s show with insight on how to form your money-resolutions this time around in a very personal and timely way, making 2014 the year you succeed.

Off-air, Maria revealed to me that I’m the first person to volunteer to her that I am the marshmallow-eating kid in that study. (Her response: “And look how you turned out!”)  As for willpower, I have no doubts of my supply. What I didn’t tell her is that I’m also the kid who when Mom would say, “You can’t leave the table until you finish your dinner!,” would still be at that table at midnight, not having moved. Marshmallows be damned.

About the author

Carmen Wong Ulrich is the former host of Marketplace Money, APM’s weekend personal finance program.

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