Friday, April 23, 2010

Don't Touch That Marshmallow

Every parent is concerned with whether his or her child has what it takes to succeed in life. We obsess over reading and speaking skills, counting, and how our children interact with us and others in their lives. Parents secretly (or not so secretly) revel in their childrens' achievements, and marvel at their talents and intelligence. What many parents may not understand however, is that their child's talents and intelligence are largely at the mercy of their self control.

Self control refers to a child's ability to discern right from wrong, and to exert control over his or her own actions. Seminal experiments on self control in children were conducted in the late 1960s by a psychologist named Walter Mischel. His first experiments in the field took place in Trinidad in 1955, where he lived in a part of the island that was evenly split between people of East Indian and African descent. In discussions, the East Indians described the Africans as "impulsive hedonists, who were always living for the moment", and the Africans claimed the East Indians "didn't know how to live, and would stuff money in their mattress and never enjoy themselves".

Mischel took children from both groups and offered them a choice: either they could eat a small chocolate bar right away or, if they waited a few days, they would get a much larger bar to eat. Mischel discovered that the ethnic stereotypes did not hold with the 4-year-old children. Instead, he found that variables such as whether the children lived with their father were better predictors of self control. These initial experiments sparked a lifelong interest in the development of self control, and how this personality trait predicts success in school and life.

The Marshmallow Experiment

Mischel is probably best known for his 'marshmallow experiments', in which over 650 4-year-olds were invited, one at a time, into a controlled setting and presented with a tray of treats. Similar to the original experiments in Trinidad, a researcher on Mischel's team told each child that they could ring a bell at any time, at which point the researcher would offer the child one treat, such as a marshmallow or cookie. The child was also told that if he or she waited 15 minutes for the researcher to return, he would be given 2 treats.

The researchers observed and recorded the children on video as they tried to resist the treats. Some of the children covered their eyes, others played with their hair, or played hide-and-seek under their desk. One devious little boy grabbed an oreo, parted it, licked the icing from the center, and neatly placed the cookie back in the tray. The average child resisted the treat for about 3 minutes. A few children ate the treat right away without even ringing the bell. However, about 30 percent of the children managed to resist temptation, and waited for the researcher to return.

Upon reviewing hundreds of hours of observations from these types of experiments, Mischel drew some important conclusions. His initial conclusion was that the children who resisted temptation were experts at what he called 'strategic allocation of attention'. Rather than focusing all their attention on the delectable treat, the children that resisted the treats were more often the ones who covered their eyes, played games, sang songs, or otherwise occupied themselves while they waited. "If you're thinking about the marshmallow and how delicious it is, then you're going to eat it," says Mischel. "The key is to avoid thinking about it in the first place". Mischel was convinced that children with a better understanding of how to focus on something else displayed much better self control behaviour.

How important is this quality of self control? Scientists including Mischel have conducted several longitudinal studies based on the results of the early childhood studies. In reviewing the data from follow-ups, researchers have shown that adults who demonstrated poor self control as children were more prone to higher levels of obesity, and were more likely to have problems with drugs. As high-school students, they are more likely to have behavioural problems at home and in school, and they found it harder to form and maintain friendships. Perhaps most interestingly, the children who waited the 15 minutes for the extra treat scored, on average, more the 200 points higher on their SATs in high-school.

Self Control Can Be Taught

Now for the good news. Though some children naturally exhibit self control more than others, it turns out that the behaviours that support a child's ability to succeed in school and life can be taught. According to Mischel, "What's interesting about 4-year-olds is that they are just figuring out the rules of thinking. The kids who couldn't delay would often have the rules backwards. They would think that the best way to resist the marshmallow is to stare at it, to keep a close eye on the goal. But that's a terrible idea. If you do that, you're going to ring the bell before I leave the room." However, when Mischel and his team taught the kids some simple 'mental transformations', such as pretending that the treat was just a picture surrounded by an imaginary frame, imagining it as a small pet that must be stroked and cared for, or picturing a marshmallow as a cloud, self control improved dramatically. "All I've done is given them some tips from their mental user manual," says Michel. " Once you realize that will power is just a matter of learning how to control your attention and thoughts, you can really begin to increase it."

Parents teach these skills naturally, but it pays to be mindful and actively provide opportunities for children to learn these skills. Mischel provides some helpful advice for parents: "This is where your parents are important. Have they established rituals that force you to delay on a daily basis? Do they encourage you to wait? And do they make waiting worthwhile?" Even simple lessons like not snacking before dinner, waiting until everyone is finished before leaving the dinner table, taking turns with toys, saving allowances, or holding out for Christmas morning can reinforce important qualities of self control. Modeling is important too, especially for young children, so parents should make a show of waiting in line, or passing on snacks or dessert.

Patience and Self Control Are Also Important For Investment Success

This is primarily an investment blog, so I would be remiss if I did not include a lesson for investors. One obvious lesson relates to saving techniques. Clearly it is much easier to save money every month if the savings come out of your account, or off your paycheck, automatically so that there is never an opportunity to spend in to an immediate 'treat'. We strongly advocate this 'pay yourself first approach' to clients who are saving for a specific goal, such as retirement or a child's education, and it has proven its efficacy many times over.

Another less obvious take-away relates to how often a person checks his or her investment portfolio. A portfolio with an allocation to stocks is necessarily constructed to meet a longer term goal, as the performance of stocks is erratic in the short term. However, clients insist on checking their portfolio values on a weekly, daily, or even intra-day basis. This is a very bad idea, as the ups and downs in the portfolio balance out over time, and are meaningless on short time scales. In fact, investors that check portfolios every day will see about 4.5 times as much portfolio variability as investors who check every month. The chart below shows how an investor's anxiety, as a function of the swings he observes in his portfolio, increases exponentially with the frequency of his observations.

Source: Butler|Philbrick & Associates
Note: Graph represents the theoretical increase in observed volatility due to more frequent observations of portfolio value according to the equation: perceived vol (time horizon 2) = perceived vol (time horizon 1) * square root (number of periods in time horizon 2 / number of periods in time horizon 1). The y-axis shows the magnitude of the increase in observed portfolio variability, with annual observations given a factor of 1.
Chart is for illustrative purposes only.

Investors would be well served by performing a great deal of due diligence as early as possible in their investment horizon in order to find an investment strategy that they are confident in, and can commit to over a very long period of time. (Click herehere, and here for evidence that Buy and Hold is NOT a smart strategy to stick with, and click here, here and here for a compelling alternative). Once that commitment is made, investors should follow the strategy with discipline, and ignore the day-to-day media circus and market gyrations, as they will lead to higher anxiety at best, and poor investment performance at worst.


In conclusion, the ability to exercise self control is highly predictive of success in school and life, and is perhaps more important than general intelligence level, as it controls how we channel that intelligence. Children who are taught the skills necessary to shift their strategic attention in order to delay gratification exhibit healthier behaviour and stronger academic performance in high school. Adults who practice delayed gratification are better savers, focus less on the short-term performance of their portfolios, and have a much better chance of achieving their financial goals.

Source: New Yorker Magazine, May 2009.