Marshmallows, Discipline, and Self-Control

May 31, 2016

Categories: Discipline

This post is Part 2 in a 3-part blog series on discipline. (If you missed the first post, you can find it here.)

I heard a definition of discipline the other day that I really liked. The speaker defined discipline as the ability to trade what I want right now for what I want most. I liked the definition because I think it gets at the core component of discipline, and why it is important for our life.

In many areas of our lives, success involves consistent engagement in tasks that are difficult, and not inherently enjoyable. By doing this, we hope to obtain a larger goal that we believe will make us happier in the long run.

Let’s take the example of health. Eating healthy and exercising is difficult. Eating healthy involves not eating foods that taste good and bring us immediate pleasure. Instead, we get to eat salads, fruit, and eggs. It’s a tough trade off. The other morning, my alarm went off earlier than I felt like getting up, and I begrudgingly got myself out of bed and drove to the gym. It wasn’t easy. To be healthy, I have to give up the things I want right this second (e.g., ice cream, sleeping in) in order to obtain a larger goal (e.g., fitness, health, longevity).

Or take the example of work and school. Writing my dissertation wasn’t fun. It took me two years, and it involved reading tons of journal articles, writing a literature review, trying to convince people to fill out my questionnaires, analyzing data, writing, re-writing, and re-writing again. By the time I was six months in, I was bored with my topic. There were times I wanted to quit. But I kept at it, because I wanted to obtain a larger goal (e.g., get a Ph.D., get a job).

Or take the work of parenting. I don’t have kids myself, but the other day I went over to my friend’s house, who has a one-year old and a three-year old. The one-year old was sick and grumpy. It was difficult getting the kids on the same sleep schedule. My friend hadn’t slept longer than 4 hours straight in quite some time. But my friend gets up every night, changes diapers, and loves his girls consistently, because it is related to a larger goal (e.g., helping his girls grow up into healthy children and adults). He gives up what he wants right now for what he wants most.

There is a classic experiment in psychology that relates to this point. In the late 1960s, psychologist Walter Mischel at Stanford University brought young children into his research lab. The experimenter would enter the room, and hand the child a marshmallow. The experimenter would tell the child that she had a choice. She could either eat the marshmallow right now, but if she waited a short time (about 15 minutes), the experimenter would return and give the child TWO marshmallows!

Then the experimenter would leave the room, and the fun would begin. As you might imagine, it’s difficult for young children to resist eating the marshmallow. It’s a classic test of discipline and self-control. The one marshmallow is what they want right now. The two marshmallows are what they want most. What would the children do?

Different children had different responses. Some couldn’t stand waiting, and ate the marshmallow right away. Others resisted for a while, but ended up eating the marshmallow before the experimenter returned. Still others waited the whole time, and when the experimenter returned, they happily enjoyed eating the two marshmallows.

The most interesting this about this experiment was that Mischel followed up the children as they grew older. Interestingly, he found that the children who waited the longest in the experiment tended to have better trajectories in their lives. The children who had the most discipline were more likely to have high SAT scores, high educational attainment, and were less likely to be overweight. Discipline matters.

Discussion: What do you want right now? What do you want most? How are you doing about trading what you want right now for what you want most?


Related Thoughts


  1. […] don’t want to work out all day every day. If you want to get stronger, you have to be just as disciplined in getting the correct amount of rest. You have to give your muscles time to recover. To get […]

  2. […] in our lives, most of the time we think about things that happen inside us. For example, how can we improve our discipline and willpower to make a change? Can we set up a system of rewards to encourage us to make the change we want to […]

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