Each time I catch the Haribo advertisement on television I feel a smidgen of discomfort. The premise is that ‘Haribo is just too good’, so the assembled children are told that if they can resist eating the sweet placed in front of them for a few minutes they will be given another one.
When I was doing my teacher training I remember being told about the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment, which works along similar lines.
The experiment was carried out in the late 1960s by a psychologist called Walter Mischel and took place at the Bing Nursery on the Stanford campus. The experiment involved more than 600 children, with each sat in an empty room and asked to choose either an Oreo biscuit, a marshmallow or a pretzel. Most, I believe, picked the marshmallow.
The room was plain and bare, so there was little distraction. The children were told by a researcher that they could eat the marshmallow, but if they waited for 15 minutes they would be given a second one as a reward and could eat both.
The researcher then left the room, telling the child that should he wish to eat the marshmallow, he simply had to ring the bell; the researcher would then return and the marshmallow could be eaten.
The majority of the children were able to delay gratification for some time and left the marshmallow, employing various techniques such as covering their eyes, turning away from it or distracting themselves through movement. But only one third delayed long enough to get the second marshmallow.
Walter Mischel’s daughters grew up with many of the experiments subjects and, as he heard their casual conversations about their friends or made day-to-day enquiries, such as ‘how is Jane doing at school?’ he began to realise there was a direct correlation between the results of the marshmallow test and the success of the child later in life.
While the initial study had been conducted to find out the mental processes that allowed some people to delay gratification and others not to, he began to suspect the experiment could tell him so much more.
In 1981 he sent out a questionnaire to all the parents he could reach and the results were startling.Those who could not delay gratification were more likely to have problems both at home and at school and to score significantly lower on SATs tests. They also struggled with stressful situations and found it difficult to maintain friendships.
Tracking of the subjects continued until they reached their mid-thirties and found that those who couldn’t delay had a higher body mass index (BMI) and were significantly more likely to have problems with addiction.
It’s an interesting experiment on many levels and makes one realise that something as seemingly amusing as the Haribo ad can have a lot of significance under the surface.