Have you heard of the Marshmallow Experiment? The one where Walter Mischel from Stanford University offered four-year-old participants one marshmallow now, or two in fifteen minutes if they could resist the temptation to eat the first.
The experiment was first undertaken in the 1960s and has been replicated numerous times in many countries with similar results.
And, what were these results? You probably guessed. Two-thirds of participants could not resist eating the first marshmallow before fifteen minutes had elapsed and, consequently, missed out on a second marshmallow.
Watching the videos of these experiments, you can’t help but smile at the strategies the young participants used to avoid eating the first marshmallow. Some even lasted until the fourteenth minute before succumbing to the urge. So close!
Not just about the marshmallows
This phenomenon is known as present bias, where we value more highly what we can have now compared to what we could have in the future — even though we may be short-changing ourselves.
Some researchers suggest that present bias is an evolutionary behaviour that has been hard-wired in the human brain. It can be traced back to prehistoric times when the supply of food was unreliable, and our forebears feasted when food was available in abundance, in case it didn’t last. It is a survival mechanism that has served us well.
Present bias is still strongly evident today, but has it outlived its usefulness? Look closely and you can see present bias all around us: spending now instead of saving for later; procrastinating by putting off work that needs to be completed; binge-watching a television series instead of doing something more productive; and, of course, overindulging in food (again!). Subsequently, present bias can have some serious consequences for our wellbeing.
Interestingly, participants of the marshmallow experiment were followed up fifteen years later. Those who resisted the urge to eat the first marshmallow recorded higher scores in a range of performance and wellbeing indicators, compared with those who succumbed to present bias and ate the first marshmallow.
We can control our behaviours
So, how do we actively manage present bias to achieve better longer term, and often more rewarding, outcomes? The key is in goal setting.
By setting and working towards goals that are strategically aligned, we can engage present bias in a positive way to meet short-term needs, whilst delivering long-term benefits. This goal planning should have a long-term horizon and a short-term focus. It should include explicit, incremental and time framed milestones that create accountability. The achievement of these milestones should trigger rewards and celebration, creating an action–reward loop that promotes good habits and supplants less desirable, and perhaps damaging, alternative behaviours.
Don’t struggle against present bias. Use it to your advantage to achieve short-term goals and long-term benefits.
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