Reflection by Headmaster Matthew Hutchison

The Marshmallow experiment is a famous psychology study on the rewards of delayed gratification conducted at Stanford University in 1972.

In the experiment, a marshmallow was placed in front of a four year old child. The child was given a choice between one small but immediate reward (eating the marshmallow) or, in addition to the marshmallow, another small reward if they resisted the temptation for 15 minutes. If they succumbed to the temptation and ate the marshmallow, they did not receive the second reward. Follow up studies found that the children who were able to delay rewards on offer showed improved academic performance, health outcomes and other measures in adult life. The findings were taken to mean that if we could teach children to be more patient, to have greater self-control, perhaps they would achieve cognitive and health benefits as well. The results were, as you could imagine, very controversial. Replicated experiments have suggested other factors such as economic and cultural background, rather than simply willpower, explained some of the outcomes of the children who resisted the temptation.

In many way, measures requiring social distancing and mask wearing, can be likened to the marshmallow experiment. The delayed gratification, not giving in to the temptation of a return to normal life until safe, is the law of progress that is made by passing through times of instability. Despite the powerful force for things to be normal, we all hope our sacrifice now will benefit all. 

Pope Francis often speaks about working in solidarity. By this he means to ‘commit oneself to the common good; that is to say, to the good of all and each individual, because we are all responsible for all.’ Francis suggests the COVID crisis is a time to dream big, to rethink our priorities and what we value. Such priorities brings with them ‘a sense of responsibility to others, a time to be kind, having faith, and working for the common good which are all great goals in life that need courage and vigour.’

Delayed gratification has its place with our boys’ approach to their studies. More than ever, whilst away from the routine of school life, the temptation to be distracted by social media, games, notifications on phones and favourite websites has been amplified. A study in American schools found that, on average, students spend fewer than 6 minutes studying before being distracted by texting and social media. Unsurprisingly, the growing evidence of the negative correlation between mobile phone use in students’ free time and academic performance says a great deal about the need for students to develop skills of delayed gratification.