December 16, 2011

Catholic Education Outreach / Harry Plummer

‘Don’t eat the marshmallow’

About four years ago I was pleased to learn that a new expression, “Don’t eat the marshmallow,” was going around one of the Catholic high schools I was serving as superintendent.

It began after I gave a talk at a National Honors Society induction ceremony at that school. My talk included a reference to a remarkable psychological study that illustrated one of the most fundamental moral precepts that we teach in Catholic schools—success is achieved through self-control and learning how to restrain the need for immediate gratification to obtain a greater good.

After you read the study’s findings, I think you will understand why I was pleased.

More than 40 years ago, a brilliant Stanford University psychologist named Walter Mischel began a most remarkable study.

One at a time, hungry 4-year-olds were placed in a room with a researcher who offered them a marshmallow. The researcher explained that he had to leave the room, but if the child could keep from eating the marshmallow until he returned, the child could have two marshmallows.

Of the 400 or so children who participated in this study, about one-third of them controlled their impulse to eat the tasty morsel. The rest either ate it immediately or resisted for a while, but gave in before the researcher returned after a 15- to 20-minute absence.

Many years later, those children—now adults—were tracked down and their lives were reviewed based on a number of success indicators.

The result? Children who did not delay the gratification of eating the marshmallow seemed to have difficulty keeping focused on tasks, had trouble dealing with stressful situations, and had a higher degree of behavioral problems in school and in their personal lives.

On the other hand, Mischel’s analysis of the results showed that the children who had resisted eating the marshmallow demonstrated statistically significant higher levels of success as measured by such things as greater job satisfaction, happier marriages, higher incomes and better health.

Remarkably, the children who resisted immediate gratification for the achievement of a greater reward also scored an average of 210 points higher on the SAT test!

Conclusions drawn from Mischel’s famous marshmallow study have been debated for decades. While respecting the various interpretations I have read, I cannot help but think how clearly it illustrates the importance of developing in youths the virtue of temperance, the cardinal virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and ensures the will’s mastery over our sensitive appetites (cf., Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1809).

In a culture often obsessed with immediate gratification and where, as writer Jules Lobel suggests, youths are invited to “gorge on fast food, sound bites, and one-liners,” the need to help them learn how to brush by the tempting marshmallows of short-term pleasures to achieve higher goals and values has never been greater.

Teaching approaches to accomplishing this are varied and are called by many names. But I can tell you what Catholic educators call it. They just call it doing their job.

(Harry Plummer is executive director of the archdiocese’s office of Catholic education and faith formation. He can be reached at

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