SUCCESS is the destination which most people if not all of mankind intends to arrive at. The meaning of success could be different for different people; but in popular culture reaching the top echelons of ones chosen field along with the associated fame and money is considered to be success in professional life. It is also generally agreed that true success is a combination of success in both personal and professional lives. But why do a small proportion of people in any generation succeed while a vast majority of people fail? What is the single most important characteristic that determines future success? And when can we spot the traits for future success in a person? It so happens that one can spot the indicator for future success as early as four years of age!!! And what is the characteristic that is used to determine if a kid would be successful in future? Is it the kid’s linguistic skill? Is it his or her inborn talent for certain sporting or artistic pursuits? Is it the kid’s ability to develop and retain friends? Or is it the early promise that the kid shows for easily learning math and science? The answer to these questions is an emphatic NO. The characteristic that can be used to determine future success is self-discipline or one’s ability to delay gratification. The study which identified that one’s ability to delay gratification is the single most important predictor of future success is probably one of the most famous psychological studies of the second half of twentieth century. This study was carried out between the late 1960s and early 1970s at Stanford University and was headed by a distinguished professor by the name of Walter Mischel. The study itself is popularly called as the ‘The Marshmallow Study’ or ‘The Marshmallow Test’ both in the intellectual circles of psychology as well as in popular press and mass media. In essence the test is simple: A group of four year old kids were taken into an observation room one at a time. On a table in front of the kid, the researcher would place one marshmallow/ cookie and a calling bell. The researcher would instruct the kid that he would leave the kid alone in the room for some time (usually about 15 minutes) to attend to some urgent work. The kid can eat the marshmallow any time he wants by ringing the bell. But if the kid can wait till the researcher returns without eating the marshmallow/ cookie, he/she will get two marshmallows/ cookies. The research obviously led to two groups of kids: the ones who could not wait till the researcher returned & ended up eating the marshmallow and the group that was able to delay its gratification and wait for the researcher to return and hence was able to earn two marshmallows/ cookies. The researchers tracked both these groups of kids (as much as possible) over the next several years. They found that the kids from the second group were more successful (health, professional & personal) than the kids in the first group. Professor Mischel feels that the skills we use to delay gratifications are the same ones that we would use to make good choices in life. I first heard about this study in the TED talk ‘The Discipline of Finishing’ by Conor Neill. The fact that we can determine if a kid will go on to lead a successful life by 4 years of his/her age and the fact that self-discipline and not intelligence is a good predictor of future success are equally mind blowing. Since then I have come across authors writing about this study in newspaper articles and books. In another TED talk by Joachim de Posada, he talks about his experience of replicating the ‘Marshmallow Test’ in his home country and the implications of the results. The video of kids trying to overcome the temptation of eating the Marshmallow is hilarious. The New Yorker published a detailed article in 2009 that provides vivid details of the study and also includes interviews of some of the participants in the original study. A more recent article by The New Yorker recounts how the psychologist (Walter Mischel) who conducted the most famous study on self-control had trouble quitting his habit of chain-smoking. Walter Mischel is a legend in the field of psychology with a number of honors to his name including the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the American Psychological Association. He is currently a Professor with Department of Psychology at Columbia University. A long overdue book on the ‘Marshmallow Test’ by Professor Mischel himself was published in September 2014. Professor Mischel recently gave a talk at The RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce). Professor Mischel answered a number of questions from the audience and went on to clarify that the intention of his study was never to preach self-denial. As I was watching the video I was wondering if what is true for an individual could be true for a society as a whole. What if self-discipline of members of the society at the individual level would translate at the aggregate level into increased success (higher Human Development Index) for the society as a whole? It would be interesting to look at the results of such a study. I wish the ‘Marshmallow Test’ and its implications would become popular among the Indian public. I also wish that the emphasis of Indian parents would be more on teaching life skills (psychology, personal finance, better civic sense, communication skills, better decision making, etc.) to their kids rather than just providing their kids with formal education at good schools. It would also be nice if Indian politicians and bureaucrats in charge of devising the curriculum for Indian schools would also include these skills as a part of the curriculum rather just focusing on Mathematics and Science.


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