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Learning, self control and marshmallows

Learn better series
Stuart Pedley-Smith
By Stuart Pedley-Smith, Kaplan Head of Learning Link to Stuart Pedley-Smith's LinkedIn profile
Delaying gratification in the short term, in order to enjoy greater rewards in the long term, is the indispensable prerequisite for success.

Brian Tracy

Children who demonstrate self-discipline gain higher marks in school, have better social and cognitive skills, greater self-awareness and cope with stress more easily in later life.

This is according to a study carried out in the late 1960s, by renowned US psychologist Walter Mischel. The research led to one of the most valuable insights into human behaviour and learning.

In the experiment, a child was offered a choice between having one marshmallow immediately or two marshmallows if they waited for a short period (approx. 15 minutes). The child was alone as the tester left the room, and they returned later to reward those who hadn’t eaten the marshmallow as promised. Those that still had the marshmallow sat in front of them had demonstrated self control.

It became known as the marshmallow experiment* and was the inspiration for further research. It raised some intriguing questions: why are some able to resist but others couldn't? Were some born with higher levels of willpower, or could it be learned?

Delayed Gratification

Later research* suggested that delaying gratification may also require trust (social trust) in the individuals offering the future rewards. If the children didn’t think they would get a second marshmallow, it was stated, then they’d most likely eat the first one. So if you don’t believe the person is trustworthy, then even those with “will power” will give in.

This implies that the ability to delay cannot be hard wired and is influenced to some extent by what you believe. There has also been the suggestion that it is logical to eat the first marshmallow, especially if you have grown up in an environment where resources are scarce.

There are two factors at play here: self-control and established belief.

Implications for Learning

Delayed gratification is about short-term for long term reward. And that is an important component of learning. Yes, learning should be interesting and enjoyable, but there comes a point when it is not.

This is especially true when taking exams, even if you enjoy the subject. Sitting a test or exam that you might fail can be stressful, and for most of us it’s a far from a pleasant experience.

Learning also requires sacrifice - in terms of what you give up. For example not meeting with friends, avoiding social media, studying on bank holidays, and generally missing out.

Simple techniques you can use

The good news is that, as Walter Mischel and others discovered, you can improve your self-control by using a few simple techniques:

  • Remove distractions – if the marshmallow had been taken out of sight, the temptation to eat it would be left to your imagination. The student’s marshmallow is most likely to be a mobile phone, so how about you remove it for a couple of hours. An alternative is to distract yourself. Rather than thinking about what your giving up, do something else. Watch a video on the topic, produce a mind map etc.
  • Have a routine – develop a routine for example, always study for two hours after you get home.
  • Reframe – if you thought that the marshmallow was bitter, the temptation to eat it would go away. It is possible to reframe the distraction as a negative, for example -  that mobile phone ringing is someone I don’t want to speak to….
  • Reward yourself – when you have studied for 2 hours, give yourself a reward. It could be anything you like, a new car might be over the top, but you deserve something.
  • Set goals – perhaps obvious, but if you have a goal not to eat the marshmallow for 15 minutes, then 1 hour, eventually you will be able to resist for days.

All of the above will work for anyone studying towards a professional accounting qualification. But one specific tip that might help is to not delay having your marshmallow for too long.  An accounting qualification can take three years, so it's best to break it down into smaller goals, take it one paper at a time.

The world is changing, as organisations attempt to satisfy the continual demands of those with a “want it now” mentality. Having what you want, when you want, may seem ideal but those who’ve enjoyed instant gratification have not always found it a good place to be.

Listen to the man himself talk about delayed gratification and the marshmallow experiment, it’s just 4 minutes.  – Walter Mischel.

Any questions about your learning?

We’re happy to hear any questions you may have about best learning practises, or the science behind the study process. We are always looking to address the most relevant questions for future blog pieces.

Stuart Pedley Smith is Kaplan Financial’s Head of Learning. For any learning subjects you may wish to read content about, email us on

*Mischel’s 2014 book, The Marshmallow Test: Understanding Self-control and How To Master It, offers some interesting insight into the nature/nurture question.
**In particular work by Laura Michaelson et al, in 2013