Nearly 40 Years Later, A Bing Study Is Still Going
By Simon Firth, Writer and Bing Parent
How long can you resist a tempting treat? The answer may help determine your success in life.
Learning to delay gratification gives children an edge in coping with life’s challenges—an edge that lasts into adulthood. That was a key finding of a groundbreaking study that psychologist Walter Mischel conducted at Bing Nursery School.
Mischel’s so-called “marshmallow studies,” which ran between 1968 and 1974, are some of the most celebrated in the history of child development. They are also among the longest-running in the history of social science. Indeed, Mischel continues to work with the original group of 550 Bing children to this day.
At the outset, his main interest was to understand what makes it hard or easy for children to delay gratification. Would certain strategies enable children to forgo a treat in the hope of being given an even bigger one later, for example?
To find out, Mischel developed a simple experiment. In one of Bing’s game rooms, a researcher met with a child and established a reward that the child would like—a marshmallow, perhaps, or a pretzel. Children were then offered two of the treats instead of one if they could wait for the researcher to leave and then re-enter the room before eating the treat. While the researcher waited right outside the door, the child was observed to see how well he or she could resist taking the single treat before the researcher came back.
It turned out that tactics such as removing the treat from view or redirecting the child’s attention made a big difference in how long children were able to wait. This finding was highly influential in suggesting techniques for helping children—and, indeed, adults—to master self-control. It also led Mischel to challenge some fundamental assumptions about the nature of personality.
Freudian theory held that personality was the manifestation of unconscious drives and wishes. Mischel’s “social-cognitive” approach suggested ways in which manifestations of personality, such as impulsivity, can be altered by actively thinking about a situation. Furthermore, it offered people a mechanism for altering situations that might otherwise overwhelm them, such as an inability to resist tasty food, by using self-regulating strategies such as distraction.
Having understood how children can develop an ability to delay gratification, Mischel and his colleagues got interested in a second question: Could that ability predict anything important later in the child’s life?
To find out, they gave all children in the Bing study scores that reflected how well they’d been able to spontaneously come up with strategies to delay gratification. The researchers then ran follow-up interviews every five years with as many of the students as possible.
It turned out, says Mischel, that one’s ability to delay gratification “is quite a significant predictor of a variety of important long-term outcomes.” One such outcome is doing well at school. Another is resiliency in later life against vulnerabilities such as being sensitive to rejection.
Mischel moved from Stanford to Columbia University in 1983. But he still follows up with the Bing participants to ask about changes in relationships, work and academic achievement since they were last contacted. Although he has lost contact with some individuals over the years due to address changes, the Bing group as a whole has been “superbly cooperative,” he notes. “This has become a very special group in the history of social science,” Mischel says of the former Bing students who made his study possible.
A new round of follow-up interviews with former Bing students from the “marshmallow studies” of the 1960s and ’70s is about to be launched by Mischel in collaboration with Oslem Ayduk, a psychology professor at UC-Berkeley. This is an opportunity for any of the “lost subjects” to become part of the study again. If you know any Bing graduates who may be in this category, they can learn more information on the follow-up studies of Bing alumni by contacting Dr. Mischel directly at WM@psych.columbia.edu.
For more on Mischel’s work visit his web page at Columbia University or see:
Mischel, W., Shoda, Y., & Rodriguez,
M. L. (1989). Delay of gratification in children. Science, 244, 933-938.