Monday, October 27, 2008

The Marshmallow Test

Many years ago a psychologist did a study with a group of 4-year-olds by giving each of them a marshmallow. He told them that they could eat it right now or wait for a few minutes and get two more. As you can probably guess, some of the kids ate theirs right away and some kids waited. So far, nothing earth-shaking about this.

The interesting part came fourteen years later. He tracked down all of the children in the study and found amazing differences between the two groups. Most of kids who had gobbled their marshmallow immediately grow to be adolescents who were likely to be impulsive and stubborn. These kids also scored 250 points lower on the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test - a common test used for college admissions) than the children who waited for the extra treats.

Stanford psychologist, Dr. Philip Zimbardo, believes this points up a significant difference in how people are affected by what he calls their "time perspective." Each of us tends to have a time perspective on life that is oriented toward the past, the present or the future. Our lives are more enjoyable when we have a healthy balance of all three of these.

Dr. Zimbardo notes that each of these time perspectives, by themselves, have both positive and negative influences on us. People who are mostly present oriented tend to have several disadvantages in their lives: gambling, being broke, engaging in risky sex, problems with alcohol. On the other hand they are fun to be around. They are often the life of the party, more spontaneous, friendly, creative and energetic. They love to find new ways of doing things such as being an improvisor of jazz music.

People who have a past time orientation often find fault with something in the past that accounts for their current failures. They see the past as the golden era of life and are quite pessimistic about ever having the good life again. Nevertheless, these people also have wonderful personality traits such as high self-esteem and see themselves as quite patriotic. They are generous in showing their gratitude and have the interesting trait of finding value in wisdom.

People with a time orientation towards the future are often those who achieve much in life by making good choices. For example, Dr. Zimbardo found that most women who had regular breast cancer screens were future oriented. If a person does not balance this view with the other two he or she may be more isolated socially and use work to compensate for relationships and sleep. He has found that Americans are increasingly finding themselves in this trap.

We all need to live life so that we can move easily between all three time perspectives when necessary. The past viewpoint is helpful for learning from our mistakes while the future orientation can motivate us to make reasonable plans for successfully managing the ever-changing challenges of life. To care for ourselves we need to be able to live in the present: taking time out to enjoy life, slowing down, spending time with loved ones. Living in the present when life overwhelms us can help fill that vacuum within.

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