No, really, this is good stuff. There's an old psychology test for children where you ask them if they want one marshmallow or two. (Two, always, duh!)
Then you tell them that you'll leave one marshmallow in the room with them, and if they wait to eat it until you get back, then you'll give them the second one. Some kids wait, some don't. The result - the kids that wait are the ones who are good at delaying gratification. The ones that don't, maybe have bad impulse control, because it's obvious that waiting for two is better than just getting one.
Sounds reasonable, right? Maybe even self-evident?
Well, there's a new study that points out something else that should have been obvious.
The kids aren't told how long they'll have to wait. The researcher said "a few minutes" or "a little while". Now, how often have you heard a parent use that phrase for something that you knew couldn't be done in less than an hour? I was always as specific as possible with my toddler, but almost every other parent I know uses fuzzy language like that for anything from literally a few minutes, to literally days.
So, in a very real sense, the children have no idea if the researcher is ever going to come back and give the children that second marshmallow. The guy may be gone for days. Maybe their parents will come to get them before he gets back.
The researchers went on to study related issues in adults.
“Our intuition is that when we are waiting for something, the longer we wait the closer and closer we get to that thing, which is what we see when we ask people about familiar things, like how long a movie will last,” Kable says. “But what we’ve found is that, if you don’t know anything about when the outcome will occur, the longer you wait the more you think you're getting farther and farther away from that outcome.”Good stuff, well worth funding more of. We can wait for the results.