I am sure you are just as interested in what we can learn from marshmallows and bunnies as I am or was until I came across some interesting research.
The study on marshmallows1 is actually quite famous in certain circles that examine how food can lead to behavioral change. The original study was done at Stanford University in 1970 by psychologist Walter Mischel. He presented 32 children with a simple choice: Would they rather have 1 marshmallow now, or wait 15 minutes and have 2? As you would expect, some consumed the treat immediately, some waited awhile before giving in to temptation, and some did their best to distraction themselves to have both confections.
However, that was only the beginning. Dr. Mischel continued to track those 32 subjects for the next 20 years. In general, it was found that the children that deferred the marshmallow longer were described by their parents as more competent, had lower body mass indexes, and eventually correlated with higher SAT scores. Another follow-up study in 2011 showed brain imaging that corresponded with the subjects trying to control temptation some 41 years later. It was thought that being able to avoid temptation determined one’s destiny.
Other subsequent studies have somewhat questioned the findings when considering the link between the subjects with more diverse backgrounds, such as the education of the child’s parents and economic background. One researcher noted: “when you’re accustomed to scarcity, you take the treat while you can.” Studies also demonstrated that whether the child trusted that the second treat would actually be presented could have a place in the decision to forego the treat in front of them.
Dr. Mischel himself wrote in 2014 that he was more interested in the strategies the children used to control their impulses and emotions. He didn’t see his own test as much of a predictor of future success, but as verification that using one’s own abilities to delay gratification can be worth the effort.
A 1978 study at McGill University by Dr. Robert Neren2 led to some surprising conclusions. Dr. Neren and his team had designed a simple study to examine the connection between diet and heart health by giving a group of genetically identical rabbits the identical unhealthy, high-fat food. The researchers were very surprised to see that some rabbits were doing surprisingly well with the unhealthy diet while the others were having the expected decreased health. Of course, they wanted to know why.
The genetic credentials were checked and verified, as was the make-up of the food. But they found that the way the food was presented to the rabbits was significantly different. Most of the rabbits had their food just placed in their cages, while one kindhearted researcher picked up the rabbits, petted and even spoke to them along with providing the kibbled food. Kibble with kindness proved to be the difference between a heart attack and a healthy rabbit heart with 60% fewer fatty deposits.
As per the scientific method we all learned in the seventh grade, the study was reproduced, but the second time with the variables by design. The healthier rabbits proved the hypothesis that kibble served with kindness makes an actual physical difference. These observations have led to a recent book on the findings by Columbia University Assistant Professor of Psychiatry Dr. Kelli Harding titled The Rabbit Effect3.
The Marshmallow Experiment demonstrates how we deal with temptations that are presented to us, and how we respond has implications for the next 15 minutes as well as 15 years. While we certainly can’t change the history we bring to the table, we do have the ability to exercise the willpower to forego short term satisfaction for greater long term rewards.
The Rabbit Effect provides insight that how we interact with others can have a great bearing on their health, possibly even greater than the food they consume. As we usually share dining experiences with those we care about most, this is an important discovery.
The Marshmallow Experiment may make us better investors by bringing more patience to the mix, and not being overly focused on immediate gratification by surrendering long-term gain. The Rabbit Effect may have the potential to make us better people to those around us. I think those people would agree being nicer is more important than being a better investor.
Although, there is nothing saying that Marshmallows can’t be fed with Love, with great Effect. I would love to hear the result of your own Experiments.
Bryan Trible, CLU, CRPC
Footnotes and References