Marshmallows and Virtue
Lent is like the Marshmallow Test. Allow me to explain.
There is a basic experiment called “The Marshmallow Test.” It was conducted with 4-year-old kids who were brought into a room, one at a time. The kids were given a plate with a single marshmallow on it. The adult said he needed to leave the room for a bit and that the kid could eat the marshmallow if she wanted. But if the kid could wait until the adult returned and not eat the marshmallow, she would be able to eat two marshmallows.
It was a simple test on self-control. It rewarded the child who can wait for an extra marshmallow.
This test has been repeated many times, and a quick YouTube search will find many hilarious videos of kids and marshmallows. There are several different reactions.
Some kids eat the marshmallow right away. It is simple to them. They must think to themselves, “There is a marshmallow in front of me, and I was told I can eat it. Therefore, I shall eat the marshmallow.” Classic case of instant gratification!
Some kids push the boundaries. They start to smell the marshmallow; they squeeze it and even pet it. Some will even lick the marshmallow or take a tiny bite of it, hoping a little sweetness will hold them over until they can eat both marshmallows.
A third type of response is distraction. These kids try hiding the marshmallow under the table or under the plate so they don’t have to see it. They look away, cover their eyes, pinch themselves, or tap on the table or chair.
Apparently, this went on for 15 minutes, which must seem like an eternity for a 4-year-old staring down a marshmallow.
In the end, two-thirds of the children ate the marshmallow.
To me, this experiment is only funny and not really that interesting. What is interesting is the follow-up.
You see, Walter Mischel conducted these experiments in 1970. As time passed, Mischel was able to check-in with the kids. He found that the kids that were able to wait for two marshmallows had higher test scores, had better reports from teachers, and had better relationships.
Self-control was actually a skill that helped the kids throughout their lifetime. It makes sense.
The experiment had nothing to do with sweets. In fact, he did the experiment with pretzels and shiny poker chips with the same results. The test measured one’s ability to see the benefit of delayed-gratification, and this is a skill that helps all throughout one’s life.
Study now so you do well on your test in the future. Run now so you are faster during your race. Be nice to your friends because it is the right thing to do, but it will also make your relationships stronger. This leads to better marriages, better jobs, and higher pay.
I refer to it as a skill instead of a talent or gift because I believe it can be learned and developed. Is there a genetic predisposition to instant-gratification verses delayed-gratification? I don’t know and frankly, I don’t care. What I care about is what we can control.
By practicing self-control, we become better at controlling ourselves. This is part of the purpose of Lent. (Read about my best Lent ever.) By practicing virtue, we become more virtuous, just as practicing a video game makes you better at that video game.
Self-control is also a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). The more we allow the Holy Spirit to work in our lives, the more we will benefit from the fruits of the Holy Spirit. And the fruit of self-control will help improve our lives, faith, and relationships… and maybe get us an extra marshmallow.
And when you are tempted to give in, let that lead you to prayer!
What are some things you can do this Lent to practice self-control?