Why Your Workplace Depends on The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment

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Back in 1972, a researcher figured one of the most startling results in organizational psychology. Practically everything having to do with your success at work depends on your reaction to situations that can be set up using marshmallows. Seriously.

Here’s how the experiment works. You place a tasty marshmallow in front of a small child, and explain to them that they can either eat the treat right away, or they can wait until you get back and receive an additional marshmallow.

That’s it. Delayed gratification. Also, it’s YouTube gold: http://www.youtube.com/embed/6EjJsPylEOY

The Three Types of People

Psychologist Walter Mischel, who is credited with first trying this out with real children and real jet-puffed sugar snacks, discovered that there are basically three kinds of people in the world:

     • People who eat the marshmallow immediately.
     • People who try and hold out for a while, but can’t manage to control themselves.
     • People who are successful at choosing not to eat the marshmallow.

As you might expect, the second group is the biggest. But as Mischel tried the experiment with older and older children, he determined that kids do get better at self-control with age.

That, however, is not the surprising part.

The Future of Marshmallow Kids

Researchers have tracked these youngsters over the years. Those who held off and got the second marshmallow do better on SAT tests. They are described as “significantly more competent.” They are healthier, have better professional careers and longer-lasting relationships. As Businessweek notes, “They were, in short, better at life.”

What does this mean for you and your workplace?  If you want to get better at making the right decisions, build in some patterns of delayed gratification. Unwrap a candy bar and place it on your desk while you finish that report. Offer your team the choice of a small party now—or a major blowout if everyone can make the deadline. Keep the supply cabinet unlocked and set up a ping pong table that anyone can use. Study the psychology of your workplace culture by fostering a live test of everyone’s willpower.

The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment isn’t just about choices: it’s about our ability to have faith in promises made by others. It tests our resolve and encourages us to enjoy the fruits of our labor. And it also teaches us about everyone else. You’ll be surprised what you learn about your employees (and yourself) when temptation is everywhere.

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