Walter Mischel conducted experiments at Stanford University throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s in which he and his researchers offered a bargain to children.
The kids sat at a table in front of a bell and some treats. They could pick a pretzel, a cookie or a giant marshmallow. They told the little boys and girls they could either eat the treat right away or wait a few minutes. If they waited, they would double their payoff and get two treats. If they couldn’t wait, they had to ring the bell after which the researcher would end the experiment.
Some made no attempt at self-control and just ate right away. Others stared intensely at the object of their desire until they gave in to temptation. Many writhed in agony, twisting their hands and feet while looking away. Some made silly noises.
In the end, a third couldn’t resist.
What started as an experiment about delayed gratification has now, decades later, yielded a far more interesting set of revelations about metacognition – thinking about thinking.