God is never early but He is never late as well.
Imagine when your regular menstrual period is delayed (It is delightful if you have planned for it but shocking if otherwise). Think about a business meeting where the other party is thirty minutes late. You are hungry and your ordered food is delayed for an hour. You are stuck in traffic and you will never make it to your scheduled appointment, or your class, or meeting or whatever. Or worse, a physician who is a minute late in attending to a dying patient. Or the fire department people who were five minutes late to the place of a highly combustible area. Or the rescue people responding late in a vehicular mishap. The normal human tendency when something or someone is delayed or late is to be annoyed, sometimes to the point of being too furious.
In all of these, we will feel either annoyance or extreme annoyance. But can we learn a thing or two from these experiences? Is there delight in delays?
In one of my posts, I wrote about the marshmallow experiment on marriage. Now let us examine again the marshmallow thing in relation to delays.
In the 1960s, Walter Mischel, a professor in Stanford University, began conducting a series of psychological studies. Mischel conducted his psychological experiments on children (ages of 4 and 5 years old). Mischel and his team conducted the so called Marshmallow Experiment. This was published in 1972.
The experiment goes this way. In a room, a child is offered a marshmallow in front of them. Then the child is given a deal that if he will not eat the marshmallow while the researcher is away, then the child will be rewarded with a second marshmallow. However, if the child decides to eat the first one before the researcher comes back, then the child will not get a second marshmallow.
Video footage of this kind must be very entertaining. Try to imagine a kid standing up, hesitating but ending up eating the first marshmallow as soon as he was left alone. Imagine how a kids control the temptation, how they jiggle on their chair only to scurry towards the first marshmallow. Imagine also how some kids were able to contain their desire to eat the first marshmallow.
Years passed, the researchers conducted follow ups. They found out that the children who waited to receive the second marshmallow:
- Have higher SAT scores
- Lower levels of substance abuse
- Lower likelihood of obesity
- Better responses to stress
- Better social skills as reported by their parents
- Better scores in a range of other life measures. (Follow up studies here and here)
Can we learn delayed gratification? Is self-control something we are born with? The answer is YES. We can learn delayed gratification. Researchers at the University of Rochester replicated the marshmallow experiment but with a little change. Here, the researchers split the children into two groups: 1) children with unreliable experiences and 2) children with reliable experiences. The children in the first group were promised a better stuff from the first item but the promise was not kept. Meanwhile, the second group had very reliable experiences. They were promised and got what was promised to them. The children in the first group had little trust that the researchers would bring a second marshmallow and thus they didn’t wait very long to eat the first one. However, the children in the second group were very optimistic. Every time the researcher made a promise and then delivered on it, the child’s brain registered two things: 1) waiting for gratification is worth it and 2) I have the capability to wait.
Therefore, display self-control is not something we are born with but rather caused by the experiences and environment.
Self-control is learnable and possible. We can discipline ourselves to be patient and persevering instead of being distracted and doing what’s easy. And moments of delays can be opportunities to develop and improve on this human aspect of self-control and discipline. Moments of delays teach us two things:
- To be patient. Things and works and arts or beauty and grandeur were not done instantaneously. Beautiful painting, sculptures and many artistic outputs were delicately and extensively made.
- To persevere in controlling ourselves. It is easy to be distracted in times of delays. We can be furious and spiral out of control especially in this era of instant-everything: instant coffee, instant noodles and instant messaging.