Implications for Business of the Revised Marshmallow Test

Daniel Goleman, an organizational psychologist, just posted an article on LinkedIn about the famous “marshmallow” psychological test given to kids.  In a nutshell, the test seems to show that if very young children are able to delay gratification and exercise self control early on, they tend to do better later in life, when, as we all now, the ability to plan for an uncertain future is a key part of success.

Recently, a group at the University of Rochester took a look at the Marshmallow test and twisted the premise a bit, looking at the reliability of the adults in the environment and its impact on whether kids would be able to resist temptation.  It turns out that if the adults in the environment were reliable, the kids could resist temptation four times as long as those who were put in a situation where the adults were unreliable before the marshmallow test was performed.

So, as Dr. Goldman postulated, what does this mean in business and especially start ups? Is the ability to delay gratification (paying yourself a salary, taking money out of the company, or even selling it off) a key to success?  I think the revised marshmallow test is really important here.  If the people involved are trustworthy and have always conducted themselves well with their peers and business partners, doing what’s best for others as well as themselves, the trust factor will enable people to work hard, with the thought that the work will eventually be rewarded.  However, if the folks in charge are seen as self-dealing, the trust of the others involved in the business will be compromised, and the success of the whole enterprise may be in danger.

This means the entrepreneurial spirit Goldman talks about makes sense as well.  Entrepreneurs often have failures and successes, and they are resilient, because they know not everything will be a home run.  But if they are working with people they like and trust, the risk becomes part of the reward, and the money becomes more like scorekeeping and not an end in and of itself.  The ability to delay gratification and look at work as being an experience generator as well as a money/comfort generator is important, but working with people you trust and can rely on is especially important as you transverse this rocky and risky road.

This feeds into the work of people like Chris Brogan and Julien Smith when they talk about Trust Agents in their book of the same name.  Reputation and trust are a part of the new currency as more and more business gets done online, and the more we find out about our innate psychology, the more this is supported.  This means that the conversations I have with my kids about honesty and developing a reputation, online and offline that mirror each other are some of the most important lessons I can teach them.

And it all may start off by being more trustworthy and reliable myself.  What about you?

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