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Marshmallow effect

Perhaps the best things in life really do come to those who can wait

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While it does not always provide specific tools to improve one's life, psychology does help to create and increase awareness of factors that cultivate an effective and broad range of habits, attitudes and perspectives. Incorporating reputable psychological findings into your lesson plans can help you become a more effective teacher.

Time paradox

An example of such knowledge is found in the extensive work of Dr Philip Zimbardo (Professor Emeritus at Stanford University) and Dr John Boyd (research manager at Google Inc) in the area of time paradox.

This new science of psychology brings to light significant ingredients that determine an individual's quality of life, which includes his or her performances at home, school and work.

Uneaten marshmallows

In the 1960s, psychologist Walter Mischel conducted the famous Marshmallow Temptation Study among four-year-olds. In this experiment, Mischel presented each child with a marshmallow.

He then told the child that he or she could either eat the marshmallow immediately, or wait and get an additional marshmallow as a reward.

As anticipated, some children yielded to the temptation and some others withstood it. Walter Mischel followed the progress of these children, monitored their school records, and surveyed and interviewed their teachers and parents until the students reached age 18.


What he found has significant implications for education: children who had resisted the marshmallow temptation turned out to be more successful and emotionally balanced than those who had given into the temptation.

They were better-adjusted and more dependable.

More specifically, children who could delay gratification scored 250 points higher on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, worked well under pressure and when in groups, were significantly more confident, and possessed a number of other positive traits and habits.

The theory

According to Dr Zimbardo's time paradox theory, individuals who could delay gratification are categorised as future-oriented, whereas those who could not resist are classified as present-oriented.

As revealed in the marshmallow temptation experiment, Dr Zimbardo argues that there are significant differences in people's behaviour, attitude and approaches to life as a result of their "future" or "present" time perspectives.

He also sheds light on those individuals whose perspective is past-oriented. Various research studies confirm that an individual's time orientation affects his or her quality and satisfaction of life, relationships, school and work performances, and a variety of other future outcomes.

As humans, we operate on all three time continua - past, present, future; but we are dominated by only one. This strong preference for one time orientation is formed over the years through biases that are influenced by our upbringing, educational opportunities, socio-economic background, religious conviction and geographical location.

Personal experience

I see this idea playing out in the lives of students at higher education institutions. Many would conveniently delay completion of their study programme because they do not have the needed motivation to sustain them through the process of completing the thesis component. In contrast, students who are certain about their future goals do not waste time, make necessary sacrifices and complete their thesis no matter how difficult the process is.

Empirical studies point to the fact that students who hold past and present orientations underperform at school and university while those who hold a future-orientation succeed and are invariably the top students.

Sadly, a majority of students that teachers come across at all levels of education have learned to be either past- or present-oriented, which poses huge problems in staying motivated, committing to long-term goals and learning for the sake of learning.

The good news is, time perspectives can be changed (unlearned and relearned) if students are made aware of the time paradox theory.

Dr Edward Roy Krishnan is the director of strategic planning at Wells International School (  He also lectures in the Graduate School of Psychology, Assumption University. He can be contacted at To access additional articles by him, visit


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