Don't Eat That Marshmallow

I have a confession, I am a closet marshmallow connoisseur.   I was the kid around the campfire chasing a perfect golden brown while I scoffed at the sacrilege of the other kids hyperventilating as they covered their flaming carcinogen-pops in spit.  Even today there isn’t much I wouldn’t do for a rocky road double scoop waffle cone.  Given my passion, it hit close to home when I recently heard about an experiment that tested kids’ ability to resist the fluffy white delicacies.

The study started in the sixties when a famous psychologist at Stanford came up with a fairly genius method of determining if a four-year-old could delay gratification.  Each child was placed in a room with a lone marshmallow and was told by a proctor that they could enjoy the delightful treat in front of them whenever they like, but if they could hold out for just fifteen minutes they would be rewarded with a second marshmallow.  Of the six hundred subjects, only about a third of the little tykes were able to muster enough willpower to resist.

What makes it really interesting is that the researchers followed the kids over time and some startling differences emerged. The “resisters” scored an average 210 points higher on their SAT than their self-indulgent counterparts.  It doesn’t stop there; as they progressed through life they had lower divorce rates, earned more money and had less body fat.

I wish I could conduct a similar study today, but this time for adults.  Since most don’t share my weakness for Stay Puft, I would use something we can all agree on: cold hard cash.  So say I ring your doorbell and hand you a briefcase full of ten grand (I like to envision it going down like a scene from a Mark Wahlberg movie) and tell you that you’re free to spend it.  Like the marshmallow experiment, I’d sweeten the deal; if you haven’t spent the cash in twenty-five years, I’ll give you ten more briefcases totaling $100,000.  Could you do it?

Unfortunately, I don’t have enough cash piled up just yet to take it door-to-door Publishers Clearing House style.  But here’s the thing… I don’t have to.  All of us are already living this experiment.  Had you invested ten grand in the market in 1990 and somehow managed to not blow it all on MC Hammer pants and Beanie Babies, in 2015 the magic of compound interest would have delivered you a $100,000 check (or if you prefer it in your Mark Wahlberg suitcase, I suppose there’d be nothing stopping you).

The sad thing is, most Americans are failing this experiment miserably.  If our dollars were actually marshmallows, most of us would look like an elementary school contest of chubby bunny.  Last Halloween as a country we spent over $350 million dollars on costumes for our pets.  Need I say more?  The Amazon-ification of our culture has put instant gratification at our fingertips, and while that might be great news when I decide at 2 AM that I want the latest Avett Brothers album on vinyl, it’s wreaking havoc on our ability to see the big picture.

I would be willing to wager that had you cut all the unnecessary spending from your last twenty-five years you could have invested a lot more than ten grand.  Instead of a garage (or basement, or storage unit) full of impulse buys, you might actually be able to buy the things you really want like an early retirement, a dream vacation or more time with family.  Zig Ziglar nailed it when he said: Be careful not to compromise what you want most for what you want right now”.

So the next time you’re about to pull out your wallet to buy that new flat screen, or whatever your object of affection might be at the moment, imagine a guy in a lab coat setting that cash on a table in front of you with the choice of having it now, or getting ten times that amount in twenty-five years, and remember your new mantra… DON’T EAT THE MARSHMALLOW!